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September 21, 2015

Tiny butterfly proboscis inspires big ideas

The physics of the butterfly's 'sipper' is inspiring materials scientists to create a human-made version for wide-ranging applications

It's often a butterfly's wings that capture our attention, but scientists at Clemson University are intrigued with another part of the butterfly called the proboscis. It's an elongated tube-shaped, sucking mouthpart that the insect can uncoil, similar to the way an elephant uncoils its trunk.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), materials scientist Kostya Kornev, biologist Peter Adler and their team at Clemson University are studying the evolution of the proboscis, its biomechanical properties and the physics of how it works to make synthetic fibers with similar properties. And, this is no simple sipper! It's actually two tubes that can come apart and then naturally come back together, so it's self-repairing.

The proboscis can also work like a sponge, as well as a straw, and its surface properties make it self-cleaning. So there's no sticky residue after a meal. Eventually, Kornev's team wants to build a proboscis-like micro siphon--or probe. Using capillary action through channels and pores, it would suck up or dispense tiny drops of fluid. Such a device would have wide-ranging applications, such as new medical tools.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF grant #1305338, Biomechanics of Self-Assembly of the Lepidopteran Feeding Device.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Kate Tobin, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.