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