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Biomechanics of insect cleaning devices

Biomechanics of insect cleaning devices

Supervisor: Walter Federle


Cleaning is of major importance for animals and helps them to maintain essential functions such as sensing the environment, removing microbial parasites, distributing secretions, and being able to climb or fly. Insects spend a considerable time grooming themselves. The complex devices that they use for cleaning have only been studied morphologically but how they work is still largely unknown. As the function of cleaning devices is closely related to their mechanical properties, this project will investigate the mechanics of selected insect cleaning structures, most of which contain brush-like hair arrays, regular combs and bristles. We recently showed for the ants‘ antenna cleaner that comb and brush arrays work as filters for dirt particles of different sizes, and that particles are removed by both mechanical interlocking and adhesion. Understanding the function of naturally evolved cleaning devices at the micro- and nanometre scale is very important, as contamination is a serious problem in modern micro-fabrication technology.


This project aims to analyze the biomechanics of cleaning at different levels. Experiments will be conducted to visualise the cleaning process in vivo, and to analyze the insects‘ detailed cleaning movements. Cleaning performance will be compared for various types of cleaning structures, and using different types of contaminants. We will characterize the morphology, mechanical properties and material properties of cleaning devices using atomic force microscopy (AFM) and electron microscopy (SEM/TEM). AFM will be used to measure the compliance of hairs and comb teeth, as well as the adhesion between particles and cleaning hairs. A detailed analysis of the three-dimensional morphology of the structures will allow us to model their mechanical responses quantitatively. The project will be supervised by Dr Walter Federle, together with Dr Kristian Franze (Dept of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience). This work will suit a biologist with interest in biomechanics and physical approaches to biology.


Hackmann, A., Delacave, H., Robinson, A., Labonte, D. and Federle, W. 2015. Functional morphology and efficiency of the antenna cleaner in Camponotus rufifemur ants. R. Soc. Open Sci. 2, 150129.

Franze, K. 2011. Atomic force microscopy and its contribution to understanding the development of the nervous system. Current Opinion in Genetics & Development 21, 530-537.