Found: The First Mechanical Gear in a Living Creature
With two diminutive legs locked into a leap-ready position, the tiny jumper bends its body taut like an archer drawing a bow. At the top of its legs, a minuscule pair of gears engage—their strange, shark-fin teeth interlocking cleanly like a zipper. And then, faster than you can blink, think, or see with the naked eye, the entire thing is gone. In 2 milliseconds it has bulleted skyward, accelerating at nearly 400 g's—a rate more than 20 times what a human body can withstand. At top speed the jumper breaks 8 mph—quite a feat considering its body is less than one-tenth of an inch long.
This miniature marvel is an adolescent issus, a kind of planthopper insect and one of the fastest accelerators in the animal kingdom. As a duo of researchers in the U.K. report today in the journal Science, the issus also the first living creature ever discovered to sport a functioning gear. "Jumping is one of the most rapid and powerful things an animal can do," says Malcolm Burrows, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge and the lead author of the paper, "and that leads to all sorts of crazy specializations."
The researchers believe that the issus—which lives chiefly on European climbing ivy—evolved its acrobatic prowess because it needs to flee dangerous situations. Although they're not exactly sure if the rapid jump evolved to escape hungry birds, parasitizing wasps, or the careless mouths of large grazing animals, "there's been enormous evolutionary pressure to become faster and faster, and jump further and further away," Burrows says. But gaining this high acceleration has put incredible demands on the reaction time of insect's body parts, and that's where the gears—which "you can imagine being at the top of the thigh bone in a human," Burrows says—come in.
"As the legs unfurl to power the jump," Burrows says, "both have to move at exactly the same time. If they didn't, the animal would start to spiral out of control." Larger animals, whether kangaroos or NBA players, rely on their nervous system to keep their legs in sync when pushing off to jump—using a constant loop of adjustment and feedback. But for the issus, their legs outpace their nervous system. By the time the insect has sent a signal from its legs to its brain and back again, roughly 5 or 6 milliseconds, the launch has long since happened. Instead, the gears, which engage before the jump, let the issus lock its legs together—synchronizing their movements to a precision of 1/300,000 of a second.
The gears themselves are an oddity. With gear teeth shaped like cresting waves, they look nothing like what you'd find in your car or in a fancy watch. (The style that you're most likely familiar with is called an involute gear, and it was designed by the Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler in the 18th century.) There could be two reasons for this. Through a mathematical oddity, there is a limitless number of ways to design intermeshing gears. So, either nature evolved one solution at random, or, as Gregory Sutton, coauthor of the paper and insect researcher at the University of Bristol, suspects, the shape of the issus's gear is particularly apt for the job it does. It's built for "high precision and speed in one direction," he says. "It's a prototype for a new type of gear."
Another odd thing about this discovery is that although there are many jumping insects like the issus—including ones that are even faster and better jumpers—the issus is apparently the only one with natural gears. Most other bugs synchronize the quick jolt of their leaping legs through friction, using bumpy or grippy surfaces to press the top of their legs together, says Duke University biomechanics expert Steve Vogel, who was not involved in this study. Like gears, this ensures the legs move at the same rate, but without requiring a complicated interlocking mechanism. "There are a lot of friction pads around, and they accomplish pretty much of the same thing," he says. "So I wonder what extra capacity these gears confer. They're rather specialized, and there are lots of other jumpers that don't have them, so there must be some kind of advantage."
Even stranger is that the issus doesn't keep these gears throughout its life cycle. As the adolescent insect grows, it molts half a dozen times, upgrading its exoskeleton (gears included) for larger and larger versions. But after its final molt into adulthood—poof, the gears are gone. The adult syncs its legs by friction like all the other planthoppers. "I'm gobsmacked," says Sutton. "We have a hypothesis as to why this is the case, but we can't tell you for sure."
Their idea: If one of the gear teeth were to slip and break in an adult (the researchers observed this in adolescent bugs), its jumping ability would be hindered forever. With no more molts, it would have no chance to grow more gears. And with every bound, "the whole system might slip, accelerating damage to the rest of the gear teeth," Sutton says. "Just like if your car has a gear train missing a tooth. Every time you get to that missing tooth, the gear train jerks."