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Gobabeb Research & Training Centre

The Namib’s fog-basking beetles performing their act in the USA

In December of 2016, twenty Namib Desert beetles (of the species Onymacris unguicularis) journeyed from the Gobabeb Research and Training Centre all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to join Prof. Constantine Megaridis’s research team in the Micro/Nanoscale Fluid Transport Laboratory of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). 

The beetles spend most of their time in four groups of five, interacting above ground during the day or diving below the sand to rest and keep cool. Each week, the beetles in one of the four groups become the subjects in fog basking trials.

The experimental setup is comprised of a transparent tank containing a small sand ridge, a cool mist humidifier, and an air conditioning unit with which the research team is attempting to recreate the natural conditions that prompt these beetles to do what they are known for – fog basking. When the beetles are thirsty and detect the fog presence, they adopt a head-down posture with their backs tilted into the direction of flow. They remain still for extended periods of time, allowing water droplets to collect on their bodies, and replenish the water needed for survival.

It is an open question whether the surface structure of the beetles’ elytra is actually optimized for fog collecting in some way, or if their ability to harvest fog is solely dependent on their willingness to perform this unique behavior. In addition to observing the fog-basking behavior, the UIC research group is attempting to answer this very question. Some high resolution photography of the elytra has already been performed using a scanning electron microscope, but much more work still needs to be done to determine the hidden truth behind these curious creatures’ behavior.

Editor (John Palumbo): After several years’ of confusing and plainly wrong stories in the scientific and popular literature about how Namib beetles supposedly optimise fog harvesting by having evolved “bumpy carapaces”, Prof Megaridis’ study will finally determine how the real fog-basking beetle species Onymacris unguicularis, which does NOT have any bumps on its carapax, collects fog.

Fog Bask

 

 

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