Planthopper Gears: Life Imitating Inventions or Vice Versa?

Planthopper Gears: Life Imitating Inventions or vice Versa?
Last Friday, the Journal of Science published the first discovery of “gears” in a living being. Neurobiologist Malcom Burrows of the University of Cambridge made a shocking observation that the legs of young planthoppers had teeth that lock into place similar to man-made gears.

Burrows and his team were pleasantly surprised at the discovery since they were not looking for it. They were simply studying flightless planthopper insects in the genus Issus. Their intention was to find out what made these bugs so springy.

What Are Planthoppers?

Planthoppers can be found worldwide and are remarkable insects. They are camouflaged to look like surrounding leaves and other flora. They move extremely slow on branches so that they don’t attract predator attention, but they have the ability to quickly hop around like grasshoppers for quicker transportation.

In a matter of milliseconds, adult planthoppers can accelerate their leap to roughly 500 Gs. Humans would pass out at this kind of speed and other jumping insects would not be able to keep up.

How Planthopper “Gears” Work

The young planthopper gears work similar to car steering systems or analog clocks that have interlocking mechanisms to get a certain type of motion going. The gears are found in between the powerful legs of young planthoppers. Older planthoppers have stronger leg muscles that no longer need the gears.

Burrow’s team used a high-speed camera to capture the young planthoppers while they jumped. The photographs then showed the planthoppers gears in the thigh area of the their legs. Each gear strip has about 10-12 teeth each and is 350-400 micrometers long.

Other insects such as grasshoppers push straight up with their legs to hop around, but planthoppers do a breaststroke motion that propels their body forward when the legs mirror each other and splay out to the sides.

If one side is off, the planthopper can wind up spinning out. To better accomplish this tricky maneouver this clever insect uses its gears to keep its legs in uniform motion. When one leg starts to move, the other leg’s gear teeth engages with the moving leg so that they push off at the same time.

This allows the insect to synchronize its legs within 30 milliseconds. It is also thinking less because the motion is automated with the gears in place. This brilliant method is extremely faster than a single bug thought.

The Use Of Nature’s Designs in Future Inventions

Robert Full, a biomechanist at UC Berkeley observes that the planthopper’s gears are “…a wonderful example of the clever solutions that nature comes up with.”

Scientists and inventors are always looking to nature for designing products that can improve our lives. Future devices might be a high-tech camera that can see like fly eyes or medical devices that resemble the efficient way a hairy bat tongue sucks in nectar.

Surprisingly, humans made gears before planthoppers were officially discovered with them. So who is the more original designer? Man or nature? Planthoppers everywhere are surely laughing at this question.

Written By: Chelo Aestrid


21 Responses to Planthopper Gears: Life Imitating Inventions or Vice Versa?

  1. Chelo Aestrid September 15, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Yes the title is silly, but man has come a long way. Yet often times man fails to remember that we are but a small reflection of the greatness of our Creator.

  2. Victor September 15, 2013 at 11:49 am

    Enlightening and useful woark on nature as engineer! Malcolm Burrows showed how much can be discovered inn a single scientific career. The secrets are genuine scientific curiosity and persistence.

  3. Ken Kramar September 15, 2013 at 11:46 am

    The planthopper was here first, so it’s inventions imitating life. I understand it was it was supposed to be a “provocative” headline – but really, what a silly question.

  4. Lonny Izlar September 15, 2013 at 10:59 am

    Science should spend more time studying nature and the technology that has been developing under our noses for millions of years. I love all these people that want to give god all the credit for the amazing world we live in but don’t attribute any blame or simply ask why.

  5. thecrud September 15, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Being as this is the first time it has ever been found the possibility of there being a versa is absolutely nil.

  6. Notstupid September 15, 2013 at 9:09 am

    I agree! All praise to Odin! Blessed be the All-Father!
    I await the comin gof the great serpent of Ragnarok…

  7. simon September 15, 2013 at 8:30 am

    That is quite amazing to be honest. Ive never even heard of these insects before either.

  8. Drew September 15, 2013 at 8:26 am

    Which god?

    • Chuck Nett (@Cheefelder) September 15, 2013 at 9:34 am

      The same god that created cancer and gives babies aids… praise be!

      • Harness Aubrey September 15, 2013 at 10:41 am

        That’s like blaming God for a poison that killed someone, when the truth is that a pharmacist screwed up the original perfect formula. We live in a fallen creation, that still is pretty amazing.

  9. dsuden September 15, 2013 at 6:53 am

    Yep, “Nature” is really smart, isn’t it? Amazing the brilliant innovations “Nature” has created, and all through sheer luck and natural selection. Praise “Nature!”

    • Bob September 15, 2013 at 7:57 am

      And praise god for sarcasm.

    • luis andino November 1, 2013 at 4:12 pm


  10. Todd September 15, 2013 at 5:00 am

    Is it possible that all the similarities within nature point to the fact that they were designed by a master craftsman that we call God? Oh, no! I said it, I must be a mindless idiot!

  11. luis andino September 15, 2013 at 4:39 am


    • arlo September 15, 2013 at 8:23 am

      Do remember that those “ills” are the result of the same natural processes that may have produced the undiscovered “cures” you expect to find.


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