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U of A researchers start bug ‘fight club’ to study weapon evolution

To study the damage inflicted during wrestling matches between male giant mesquite bugs (Thasus...
To study the damage inflicted during wrestling matches between male giant mesquite bugs (Thasus neocalifornicus), the researchers outfitted some of them with body armor consisting of patches of faux leather glued onto their backs. Each bug also was given a number to keep track of the outcomes. Here, contestants "140" and "115" are about to duke it out. Zachary Emberts(Zachary Emberts)
Updated: Feb. 3, 2021 at 8:42 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Battling bugs in body armor isn’t the plot for a new television series, but the reality at the University of Arizona. Some Tucson brawling beetles are helping solve mysteries about weapons in the animal kingdom.

We all know the first rule of fight club, but in this “bug fight club,” there’s a lot of talking going on.

In new research published, University of Arizona researchers collected 300 insects from the Tucson desert, outfitted them with leather body armor, and staged one-on-one fights.

“When they fight, they have these spines or spikes on their legs and what they’ll do is they’ll use those spines to injure their rivals when they’re fighting,” says Zach Emberts, a postdoctoral fellow.

So what’s the point of this? The researchers say it was to find out why weapons differ among species, and to test how different weapons relate to how much damage is caused.

“If two humans were fighting, it makes sense injury would be an important factor in who wins and who loses the fight,” says Emberts.

“So you could look across species and see that different weapon shapes cause different amounts of damage,” says professor John J. Wiens.

But some have questioned whether the practice is humane. Emberts says, yes. They’re bringing a naturally occurring behavior into the lab.

“Putting this fake leather armor on the insects, the males can’t get injured during the fights. So this was a way we came up with to stop the damage from occurring,” says Emberts.

The findings of the study show damage is indeed important in who wins the fights.

Though that seems like common sense, emberts says it had not been experimentally shown before.

“Hopefully this will one day help us explain horn shapes in mammals, horn shapes in chameleons and other kinds of insect weapons,” says Wiens.

To read the findings of this study, click here.

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