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Borrowed From the Beetles

10 August 2004 (All day)
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Fire! The jewel beetle moves in to lay its eggs immediately after a forest fire has raged.

Spotting wildfires as early as possible is vital in slowing their spread. Now, a beetle thought to be able to detect fires from as far away as 80 kilometers has inspired an ingenious and cheap new forest fire detector.

The jewel beetle, Melanophila acuminate, is a living fire detector: It can sense forest fires from afar, moving in quickly to lay its eggs in the smoldering bark of burnt trees, where its young develop virtually free of competition. To spot fires, the bug has discs of cuticle in tiny pits under its wings, which absorb infrared radiation at 3 micrometers, the dominant wavelength emitted by a raging wildfire. The heat makes the discs expand, setting off mechanoreceptors.

Now, zoologist Helmut Schmitz and colleagues at the University of Bonn in Germany have used polyethylene platelets that replicate these infrared sensors. Their patented finding, described in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Comparative Physiology, could be mounted in protective housing with a power supply and maybe a GPS device to provide timely and accurate information about forest fires, says Schmitz. Because they detect heat, instead of smoke--which wafts away easily--they could be more accurate than standard fire detectors.

Current methods to detect forest fires, such as airplane and satellite surveillance and fire watchtowers, are often difficult and expensive, says Richard Sneeuwjagt, a fire manager with the Western Australia Department of Conservation and Land Management in Kensington. "Cheap, reliable and accurate technology for fire detection," such as Schmitz's finding, will help improve current methods, he predicts.

Related Sites
Helmut Schmitz's Web site (in German)
A paper, co-authored by Schmitz, about the beetle's infra-red receptor (PDF)
Western Australia Department of Conservation and Land Management

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