Forest fires repel most animals, but they attract black fire beetles. Why? Because newly burned trees are an ideal place for these insects to lay their eggs. Furthermore, fire drives away predators, leaving the beetle free to eat, mate, and lay eggs safely. But how do black fire beetles find forest fires in the first place?
Consider: Next to its middle legs, the fire beetle has sensors called pit organs that can detect infrared radiation from a forest fire. The radiation generates heat in the pit organs and then directs the beetle to head for the flames.
But these beetles have other sensors in their fire-detection tool kit. When their favorite trees burn, the beetles’ antennas detect minute quantities of certain chemicals that fires release into the air. According to some researchers, black fire beetles can use their “smoke detector” antennas to find a single smoldering tree over half a mile (0.8 km) away. As a result of the combination of their abilities, these beetles appear to sense and find forest fires from a distance of more than 30 miles (48.3 km)!
Researchers are looking to the black fire beetle’s pit organs and antennas to improve devices that detect infrared radiation and fire. Traditional high-resolution infrared sensors must be cooled, so the beetle may help scientists to develop better sensors that will function at room temperature. The beetle’s antennas have inspired engineers to develop fire-detection systems that are more sensitive and can distinguish between the by-products of forest fires and other chemical compounds.
Researchers are astounded by the black fire beetle’s unique way of finding a place to lay its eggs. “How did these beetles develop their ability to lay eggs this way?” asks E. Richard Hoebeke, a beetle expert at Cornell University, in the United States. “Think about how little we know of insects with incredibly sensitive and complex sensory mechanisms.”
What do you think? Did the black fire beetle’s ability to detect forest fires come about by evolution? Or was it designed?