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Trilobites: How Cockroaches Crash Into Walls and Keep Going

Slow-motion video of a cockroach running at a wall with its body angled. Researchers found roaches that use this strategy were no faster than roaches that collide head on with the wall. Jayaram et al

Anyone who’s tried to kill a cockroach knows that the ancient pests have some world-class evasive maneuvers. Or at least they appear to.

The agility of cockroaches may owe less to lightning-fast reflexes and fancy footwork than their tough, shock-absorbent bodies. According to a new study, American cockroaches can run full-speed into walls and other obstacles because their exoskeletons allow them to recover quickly with hardly any loss in momentum.

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Scientists found that the tough exteriors of cockroaches help them keep moving without losing much momentum when they bump into things. Credit Journal of the Royal Society

“Their bodies are doing the computing, not their brains or complex sensors,” said Kaushik Jayaram, a biologist at Harvard University and lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

The findings — which were further validated by a tiny, cockroach-sized robot — could influence the design of the next generation of robots that run, jump and fly.

The escape methods of the American cockroach are legendary among scientists. Studies have shown them to be among the world’s fastest insects, reaching speeds of up to 3.4 miles per hour (or about 50 body lengths per second). They can pivot quickly, scamper across ceilings and disappear into tiny crevices.

Slow-motion video of a robot running at a wall. The robot’s design was inspired by a cockroach. Jayaram et al

But they are also known to frequently collide with obstacles. Dr. Jayaram wanted to know whether those collisions counted as missteps or were part of a strategy that favored speed over accuracy. To find out, he and a team of researchers focused on one of the insect’s signature moves: the blink-of-an-eye transition from running along a floor to scaling a vertical wall.

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