You may think of scorpions in terms of their offensive weapons – that is, the badass stinger of your wildest nightmares – but they're also evolved in the defense department too. New research, published by Chinese bionic engineers (yes, that's an amazingly real job title) Zhiwu Han, Junqiu Zhang, and Wen Lim, shows that the common desert scorpion (Androctonus australis) has evolved special armor to deal with the endemic onslaught of sandstorms in their environment.
Additionally, the authors contend that the scorpions' naturally engineered armor can inform man-made land predators, the increasingly desert-bound helicopters, tanks, and planes of modern warfare. Apparently sandstorms do a number (or, in dollar terms, very large numbers) on the shelf life of those war machines.
Scorpions were, arguably, the first land predators in the history of the Earth, as their ancestors scampered out of the ocean over 400 million years ago. That's a lot of time to evolve some pretty serious hardware. Han and his crew studied the microscopic architecture of the desert scorpion's carapace using powerful microscopes designed to highlight detailed surfaces with ultraviolet rays (scorpions are known to glow under UV light).
The researchers reported seeing "microtextures such as bumps and grooves" that they believe "construct the functional surfaces to achieve erosion resistance." These tiny (really tiny, like 10 micron tiny) scorpion bumps disrupt the air flow against the animal, which comes in handy when the desert is blustering. Using computer models of both sandstorms and this scorpion's bumpy carapace, the researchers found that the grooved surface is over twice as effective at preventing erosion than a smooth surface.
The lesson for helicopter, tank, and plane manufactures is to introduce a little irregularity to the shells of the vehicles, mimicking the bumpy surface of desert scorpion armor. While they’re at it, maybe they’ll decide to throw on a stinger too.