The only animal with overlapping scales is a pangolin, and this characteristic has some unexpected uses in internal medicine.

It’s your fortunate day if you don’t know what a pangolin is. The small, endearing, and terribly threatened animal, which is mostly found in tropical areas of Africa and Asia, is the only mammal known to be entirely coated with overlapping scales made of hard keratin—the same substance that makes up your hair and nails. A pangolin’s ability to coil up into a protective ball when necessary is made possible by the flexible scales’ structure; this inventive evolutionary design served as the basis for a team of engineers’ most recent creation.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Germany developed a robot that could replicate a pangolin’s roly-poly resilience, as detailed in an article published on June 20 with Nature Communications. The tiny robot employs its scaly shape to swiftly traverse surroundings while carrying small weights rather than doing so for protection. The team’s barely two-centimeter-long robot, which can be heated to over 70 degrees Celsius (about 158 degrees Fahrenheit), has great potential for delivering medication inside of patients and aiding in treatments like reducing unintentional internal bleeding.

The pangolin-inspired robot features a comparatively simple, two-layer design—a soft polymer layer studded in magnetic particles, and a harder exterior layer of overlapping metal scales. Exposing the robot to a low-frequency magnetic field causes it to roll into a cylindrical shape, and subsequently directing the magnetic field can influence the robot’s movement. While in this rolled shape, the team showed that their pangolin-bot can house deliverables such as medicine, and safely transport them through animal tissues and artificial organs to a desired location for release.

Exposing their robot to a high-frequency magnetic field, however, offers even more avenues for potential medical treatment. In such instances, the pangolin robot’s metals heat up dramatically, providing thermal energy for situations such as treating thrombosis, cauterizing tumor tissues, or even stopping internal bleeding. “Untethered robots that can move freely, even though they are made of hard elements such as metal and can also emit heat, are rare,” reads a statement from the Planck Institute, adding that researchers’ new robot “could one day reach even the narrowest and most sensitive regions in the body in a minimally invasive and gentle way and emit heat as needed.”

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