Nature's Gear System Helps the Issus Hop

| 13 Sep 2013 15:55

For the first time, mechanical gears similar to those found in man made machinery, have been closely documented in nature.

Humans have been using gears for thousands of years, with evidence to suggest as far back as the third century BC, they were in at least theoretical usage. Gears have been used in everything from warfare to clock making to automobiles. As much as we might congratulate ourselves for such a groundbreaking innovation, nature seems to be one step ahead. Mother Nature has been using gears for millions of years, as scientists from Cambridge University have recently discovered an insect that uses biological gears in its legs to jump.

The small plant hopper, Issus coleoptratus, common place in many gardens across Europe, has been found to have evolved a rather unique method of propelling itself around. At the point of contact between the two hind legs, the famous interlocking teeth mechanism of machinery across the world can be seen. Upon preparing to jump, the insect bends it's legs which causes the gears to interlock and "arm." Thanks to this system, the act of jumping is streamlined and aided in the coordination of leg movements to best propel the insect to its destination. The gears aren't interlocked all the time, thus it's a system that has evolved primarily for jumping.

It takes just 2 milliseconds for the insect to get airborne to a top speed of 3.9 meters per second (that's an acceleration of approximately 200G). "This is a phenomenal performance," says Malcolm Burrows of the University of Cambridge. "How on earth do they do it?" Interestingly, rather than outlining an investigation and experiment plan of these creatures, they were completely unknown to Burrows before he spotted them in a colleague's garden. "We were poking around and there were these bugs, jumping around like crazy." Upon closer inspection, he could see the meshing gears interlocking between its hind legs.

It is noted that the gears had been seen before by a German biologist called K. Sander. Unfortunately, his paper isn't available on the internet and the study performed on them isn't as in-depth as the photos and footage obtained by the team at Cambridge. However, this is another fascinating insight into how long standing developments in the natural world can help inspire future human development. Indeed, in this case we developed the gear before properly observing this insect. Maybe next time we can find something fascinating in nature early on to save thousands of years of research and development!

Source: New Scientist

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