Photo: The Crazy Path Taken By A Tiger Beetle In Pursuit Of A Meal

This is the path taken by a tiger beetle in pursuit of prey.

It looks like a tangled mess but there’s method to that, says Jane Wang, a Cornell University professor of mechanical engineering and physics, who tries to find simple physical explanations for complex, hardwired animal behaviours.

It turns out the tiger beetle, known for its speed and agility, does an optimal reorientation dance as it chases its prey at blinding speeds.

According to a study published in the journal Royal Society Interface, Wang and colleagues used high-speed cameras and statistical analysis to reveal a control law in which the angular position of prey relative to the beetle’s body axis drives the insect’s angular velocity with a delay of 28 milliseconds. That’s about a half-stride in beetle terms.

These observations led Wang to propose a physical interpretation of the behaviour: that to turn toward its prey, the beetle, on average, exerts a sideways force proportional to the prey’s angular position, measured a half-stride earlier.

“The idea is to find laws that animals use to intercept their prey,” Wang said. “We do it, too [interception] – when trying to catch a baseball, or when chasing someone. But since insects have a smaller number of neurons, their behaviours are more likely hardwired, which makes it possible for us to find and understand the rules they follow.”

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