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Things With Antlers

Future Machines Learning from Nature

The Morphing Matter Lab develops transformative and adaptive materials in order to realize the fictional future in the present. Nature, and the dynamic, adaptive systems that make it up, provide one of our primary sources of inspiration. This article is part of a series, which aims to wonder how the intricacy of natural materials could one day become a part of our daily lives. The concept flow:

{ nature’s teaching > learning, morphing matter > future technology }

I’ve always been fascinated by insects, if one views the movement and construction of their outer shells, their carapace, from the standpoint of a product designer, they are entirely remarkable. The fine fit and range of motion of every joint, their lightweight yet extremely durable structure, and finally the extraordinary variation of form amongst this unique arthropod class. There is much to smile in wonder over in this group of creatures, but I am going to focus on four fascinating families within this class: the Scarabaeidae [ scarab beetles ], Lucanidae [ stag beetles ], Formicidae [ ants ] and Lampyridae [ fireflies ]. These three families display unique characteristics which I will synthesize into a single ‘teaching of nature’ having to do with communication and emotional expression through form.

The lampyridae family displays significant variation in external form, but they share one extraordinary characteristic, the ability to generate light within their organs by combining the enzyme luciferin with a compound called luciferase. The result is an ability to project light from their bodies in different ways to signal other members of their species. Normally, this light is modulated into a signal pattern which is unique to each species, which they use to find and judge the quality of mates at night in the correct season. In some amazing cases, this communication is hijacked! Photuris Pennsylvanica has learned to emulate the signals of other fireflies such as Photuris Pyralis, fooling the unsuspecting insect to approach, when the Pennsylvanica pounces and eats its prey! [3]

light emission compounds and photinus pyralis

It has been widely known for quite some time that ants can receive signals through their antenna, essentially ‘smelling’ the world through the sensitive, elongate organs on their cranium. The antennae can detect cuticular hydrocarbons, which are unique markers of an ant’s history and identity. Through careful contact, ants can perceive the identity and status of another. 2016 research from University of Melbourne has reshaped our understanding, demonstrating that ant’s antennae can also transmit signals! [2] These signals can convey information about intent, identity, and also be used in combination with pheromones to coordinate the actions of the colony. Eusocial insects like ants display remarkably well coordinated behavior, which is guided by the release and reading of pheromones, allowing them to indicate danger, promising food sources, and pathfind in addition to identification.

ants use their antennae to communicate by touch and pheromones

Scarab beetles display a remarkable variation in horn shape, dimension, allometry, and even rate of change over generations. Although their horns can be used for mundane tool-like tasks such as scraping and digging, their primary function is in mating displays and combat. In combat, male scarabs approach in tunnels and compete against each other with their horns, in general, the longest and most elaborately horned male wins, allowing him to pass on his genes. Additionally, a male beetle who is unable to grow horns above a certain length, will not grow them at all, marking a class distinction between males. Over generations, horn shape and even location on the body have varied greatly. [4]

left: eupatorus gracilicornis right: scarab horn configurations

Male stag beetles have enormous, elongate jaws which resemble the horns of male deer. In mating, they perform a circular dance around the female, showing off the size and elaborate form of their jaws to demonstrate their value. If a second male becomes interested in the same female, the two males will grapple: grabbing each other and trying to flip each other over until one establishes victory. [5] Stag beetles show that the horn form can be used both as a dance and a weapon. Since the jaws of males are so long, it would reasonable to assume that they would not be able to apply significant mechanical force through their jaws in combat. A long lever arm, actuated only at one end, is difficult to produce force with. However, a 2014 study showed that males were able to apply up to 3x as much force as their female counterparts, due to modified cranial geometry which allows increased muscle tissue. [6]

I discussed four different insect communication strategies and forms, but I am less interested in the simple facts of insect communication. These micro case studies show interesting ways that human communication could be different. There is precedent for the kind of cranial communication that insects display in certain historical human forms: crowns, masks and helmets. Although static these artifacts convey cultural and practical information to other humans when worn: status, identity, intent, and capability. The famous roman war helmet conveys a radically different intent from the crown of laurels worn at a celebration. Yet these are limited artifacts in a sense, they have a given form, often shaped by the necessity of purpose, and that form is not responsive either to the wearer or her environment. The capabilities of morphing and environmental sensing could radically transform these ancient human artifacts.

Imagine a decorative headpiece, perhaps visually styled somewhat like stag beetle or scarab horns, with the ability to radiate subtle culturally specific light patterns. They could be actuated, taking on a variety of forms depending on the wearer’s emotional state. A morphing structure might be driven by changes in skin temperature and moisture, or in the future be connected to the wearer’s brain wave activity for even more subtle movement. They might be daily life devices, worn to help human society become more sensitive to the emotions of others. Or they might be worn in the most critical meetings and council sessions, helping each person sense the identity and intent of the others. They could be marvelous for performance and fashion, yielding dazzling and dynamic movement and form to complement the event.

  1. Lloyd, James E. Male Photuris fireflies mimic sexual signals of their females’ prey. Science 210.4470 (1980): 669–671.
  2. Wang Q, Goodger JQD, Woodrow IE, Elgar MA. Location-specific cuticular hydrocarbon signals in a social insect. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, 2016 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2016.0310
  3. Hojo, Masaru K., et al. Antennal RNA-sequencing analysis reveals evolutionary aspects of chemosensory proteins in the carpenter ant, Camponotus japonicus. Scientific reports 5 (2015): 13541.
  4. Emlen, Douglas J., Laura Corley Lavine, and Ben Ewen-Campen. On the origin and evolutionary diversification of beetle horns. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 104.suppl 1 (2007): 8661–8668.
  5. Mathieu, J. M. Mating behavior of five species of Lucanidae (Coleoptera: Insecta). The Canadian Entomologist 101.10 (1969): 1054–1062.
  6. Goyens, Jana, et al. Biomechanical determinants of bite force dimorphism in Cyclommatus metallifer stag beetles. Journal of Experimental Biology 217.7 (2014): 1065–1071.



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Adrian Galvin

design • science • visualization • illustration • jiu jitsu