Ironclad beetle (Phellopsis porcata)
Strap yourselves in, kids! This week’s crawly is a marvel of engineering. Meet the ironclad beetle (Phellopsis porcata).
The ironclads did not get their name because of their rusted-out coloration. In fact, porcatas come in a variety of earth tones from olive to the pictured rusty color all the way to “none more black.”
Nope. Their name comes from their nearly impenetrable exoskeleton.
How tough are they? Porcatas – and all their relatives in the Zopheridae Family – are so tough they can easily survive being run over by a car. Yup. This has literally been done as a scientific test.
Before we delve into what makes all ironclad beetles so tough, let’s learn some specifics about our local porcatas.
There are 110 subspecies of ironclad beetles in North America, but porcatas can be found only on the West Coast; they know a good habitat when they see it.
Porcatas have a very specific diet, as both adults and larvae feed only on fungi associated with decaying trees in old growth boreal forests.
Finding a porcata, while not impossible, is difficult. There are only a handful of sightings in Southern Oregon, most in Douglas and Josephine counties with two in Klamath County.
Porcatas are small – just one-half inch – and sport excellent camo, as well as armor, making them tricky to spot. They blend in perfectly with bark of old growth trees, and with rocky, barky, needly substrate around trees.
When disturbed, they will fall to the ground, pull in all their limbs and antennae under their armor and play dead. Which is what the one I found was doing. It took me 10 years to find one, then there one was, in the middle of the Castle Creek Wildflower Trail at Crater Lake National Park.
Fun Fact: If I found a porcata on that same trail seven or eight years from now, it might very well be the exact same porcata.
This takes us back to the toughness of ironclad beetles. While most beetles live for only a few weeks or months for the lucky ones – ironclad can live up to eight years. Their super tough exoskeleton is practically predator proof.
They can withstand the crushing pressure of 39,000 times their own body weight. In human terms, that would be the equivalent of a person having 2,900 tons pressed on them. That is not a typo.
The masterful engineering which allows ironclad beetles to withstand this pressure is a combination of a practically perfect out shape filled with tight joints and amazing internal layers.
The protein-packed exoskeletal layers can crackle and separate without any part of the whole breaking. Additionally, layers allow pressure to be distributed over joints and other areas where the external armor is joined.
The dorsal and ventral (top and bottom) sections of the exoskeleton are “stitched” together in a zig zag manner forming a fortress around the beetle’s internal organs. But wait, there’s more! The dorsal and ventral portions can shift relative to each other, so when squished protective fluids move to the back, freeing up room and pressure around the vital organs.
Ironclad beetle engineering is so amazing, human engineers are studying it hoping to apply the brilliant beetle’s techniques to synthetic materials used in both aircraft and construction.
And this warty looking little wonder can be found right here in our own backyard!