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Freaky fly larvae could lead to suction cups that won't let go

These baby insects have wild "suction organs" that defy blasting rivers.

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Here's a super close-up look at a midge larva suction organ. 

Victor Kang

We've all heard the disappointing popping sound of a suction cup falling off of a wall, mirror or window. Scientists are examining the wondrous way net-winged midge larvae in Austria cling to rocks in rivers, and it could lead to suction cups that won't give up the ghost.

A research team led by zoologists at the University of Cambridge took an extremely up-close look at the suction organs the fly larvae use to stay attached to rocks while getting blasted by flowing water. For some of these critters, it takes a force greater than 600 times their body weight to detach them from the rocks. Now imagine that strength in a suction cup.

"They aren't bothered at all by the extreme water speeds -- we see them feeding and moving around in all directions," said Cambridge PhD student Victor Kang, lead author of a study published in the journal BMC Zoology on Wednesday. 

The suction organ has a muscle-controlled piston at the center and a dense array of tiny hairs that contact the rock. To detach, the larva opens a small slit in the disc. You can watch the suction organ in action in a video that shows how the slit opens to let the larva move. 

"This is the first time such an active detachment mechanism has been seen in any biological system," the University of Cambridge said in a statement.

Now that scientists have a good understanding of how the suction works for these insects, they're looking at developing bio-inspired suction cups. "There could be medical applications, for example allowing surgeons to move around delicate tissues, or industrial applications like berry picking machines, where suction cups could pick the fruit without crushing them," said study co-author Walter Federle.

A lot of people would also be thrilled to get a suction cup that simply stays put on a bathroom mirror. 

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