Since nearly all adult insects fly, the cuticle has to provide a very efficient and lightweight skeleton. Information is available about the mechanical properties of cuticle-Young's modulus of resilin is about 1 MPa, of soft cuticles about 1 kPa to 50 MPa, of sclerotised cuticles 1-20 GPa; Vicker's Hardness of sclerotised cuticle ranges between 25 and 80 kgf mm(-2); density is 1-1.3 kg m(-3)-and one of its components, chitin nanofibres, the Young's modulus of which is more than 150 GPa. Experiments based on fracture mechanics have not been performed although the layered structure probably provides some toughening. The structural performance of wings and legs has been measured, but our understanding of the importance of buckling is lacking: it can stiffen the structure (by elastic postbuckling in wings, for example) or be a failure mode. We know nothing of fatigue properties (yet, for instance, the insect wing must undergo millions of cycles, flexing or buckling on each cycle). The remarkable mechanical performance and efficiency of cuticle can be analysed and compared with those of other materials using material property charts and material indices. Presented in this paper are four: Young's modulus-density (stiffness per unit weight), specific Young's modulus-specific strength (elastic hinges, elastic energy storage per unit weight), toughness-Young's modulus (fracture resistance under various loading conditions), and hardness (wear resistance). In conjunction with a structural analysis of cuticle these charts help to understand the relevance of microstructure (fibre orientation effects in tendons, joints and sense organs, for example) and shape (including surface structure) of this fibrous composite for a given function. With modem techniques for analysis of structure and material, and emphasis on nanocomposites and self-assembly, insect cuticle should be the archetype for composites at all levels of scale. (C) 2004 Elsevier Ltd. Ail fights reserved.