National Geographic Daily News
''Gears'' on a plant-hopping insect's hind legs.

A scanning electron micrograph of the gear wheels on a young planthopper insect.

Image courtesy Malcolm Burrows

A young plant-hopping insect.

Image of a planthopper nymph. Photograph courtesy Malcolm Burrows

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic

Published September 12, 2013

A garden variety bug found in backyards around the world has been hiding a surprising secret in plain sight, a set of natural gears essential to its prodigious jumping ability.

Young planthopper insects (Issus coleoptratus) can jump about three feet (a meter) in a single bound. They employ gear wheels—complete with teeth that interlock with grooves—to coordinate their hind legs during high-speed jumps.

Their two hind legs move within 30 microseconds of each other during a launch, compared with the two- to three-millisecond delay between the two hind legs of grasshoppers. The young planthoppers, called nymphs, eject themselves into the air at about ten feet (three meters) per second. (Related: "How Do Fleas Jump? New Video Solves Mystery.")

Without the gear wheels on their hind legs to tightly coordinate their movements, these nymphs could find themselves spinning through the air if one of their hind limbs moved before the other.

"I'm not aware of any example of gear wheels interacting with each other in the way that we describe in [our study]," said Malcolm Burrows, a University of Cambridge researcher who studies how animals move.

Nature provides examples of gear-like structures on other animals, such as the cogwheel or spiny turtle (Heosemys spinosa), but those "gears" are ornamental, said Burrows, co-author of the study published September 12 in the journal Science.

Crocodilians have a cogwheel valve in their hearts to regulate blood flow. But gears that ratchet together to synchronize movement in an animal is a new one.

Although the insect's gear wheels are similar in shape to manufactured gears, the natural structures are asymmetrical.

"In these animals, the really important time for the gears to engage and transmit [power] is before the jump," Burrows said. So the shape of the gear teeth is skewed, allowing them to rotate in only one direction.

Not for Adults

Adult planthoppers don't have these structures, explained Burrows. When the nymphs molt into their adult bodies, they lose the gear wheels. Instead, the adults use a frictional strategy, where the parts of their hind legs closest to the body rub against each other to ensure synchronized movement.

Burrows isn't sure why the adults don't also use gear wheels when jumping. He speculates that it might be due to the fact that in nymphs, which molt about five to six times before becoming adults, lost gear teeth can be replaced with the next molt.

Since adult planthoppers don't molt, they wouldn't be able to replace damaged parts. "If you break your gear wheel a day after you molt, you'll have to live with a broken gear wheel for the rest of your life," Burrows explained.

And that life would probably be pretty short, he said, since the insect wouldn't be able to effectively jump away from predators. (Related: "Why Do Poisonous Caterpillars Jump?")

Although these gears are found only in young planthoppers at the moment, it wouldn't surprise Sheila Patek, a researcher at Duke University in North Carolina who also studies animal movement, if there were other creatures out there with similar structures.

"What surprised me is that [Burrows] found it in a particular stage of development, and it goes away in adult stages," said Patek, who was not involved in the study. "It's definitely a wonderful discovery.”

Garden-Variety Subjects

Burrows didn’t expect to find such a unique mechanism in the young planthoppers. Initially, he was interested in them simply because he wanted to figure out how they jumped so well. The researcher teamed up with engineer Greg Sutton—then at the University of Cambridge—to try and unlock the planthopper's secrets.

Searches through his own garden for research subjects turned up empty for this champion jumper. So Burrows decided to enlist the help of his five-year-old grandson in 2010 by showing the youngster pictures of the planthopper he was looking for.

"He phoned a couple of days later, very excited, saying he had found them in his yard," said Burrows. Turns out even the youngest researchers can contribute something exciting to science.

13 comments
Louis Morelli
Louis Morelli

What did this gear? DNA has this tooth-like structure as a "zipper". Bumps exists at any nucleus of any natural system. Rotating structures exists at galactic and atomic nucleus. Rocket impulsion were seeing everywhere in Nature before insect's existence. Look to volcanoes, or the proton emission of a signal particle, the pion. So, this biological gear is product of evolution and convergence of natural forces and elements to the same point at time/space... the  insect body.  Nature can do it  because all informations about the whole galaxy are encrypted at the DNA. We discovered it when calculating the configuration of LUCA ( the Last Universal Common Ancestor) using the method of comparative anatomy between living and non-living systems. The building blocks of atoms and galaxies are exactly the same configuration of the unit of information in DNA, a base pair of nucleotides. So, DNA is merely a biological shape of a universal Matrix. Then, I have elaborated the Matrix/DNA Theory, which models are under testing. It is up to any species making that the right genes are expressed, since that it is necessary for survival.

michael johnson
michael johnson

do people really still believe in evolution when discoveries like this are made ?

Babu Ranganathan
Babu Ranganathan

NOT MADE BY NATURE! Just because something exists in nature doesn't mean it was invented or made by Nature. If all the chemicals necessary to make a cell were left to themselves, "Mother Nature" would have no ability to re-organize them into a cell. It takes an already existing cell to bring about another cell. The cell exists and reproduces in nature but Nature didn't invent or design it! Nature didn't originate the cell or any form of life.

Natural laws can explain how an airplane or living cell works, but it's irrational to believe that mere undirected natural laws can bring about an airplane or a cell. Once you have a complete and living cell then the genetic program and biological machinery exist to direct the formation of more cells, but how could the cell have originated naturally when no directing code and mechanisms existed in nature? All of the founders of modern science believed in God. Read my Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

Only evolution within "kinds" is genetically possible (i.e. varieties of dogs, cats, etc.), but not evolution across "kinds" (i.e. from sea sponge to human). How did species survive if their vital tissues, organs, reproductive systems were still evolving? Survival of the fittest would actually have prevented evolution across kinds! Read my Internet article: WAR AMONG EVOLUTIONISTS! (2nd Edition). I discuss: Punctuated Equilibria, "Junk DNA," genetics, mutations, natural selection, fossils, genetic and biological similarities between species.

Natural selection doesn't produce biological traits or variations. It can only "select" from biological variations that are possible and which have survival value. The real issue is what biological variations are possible, not natural selection. Only limited evolution, variations of already existing genes and traits are possible. Nature is mindless and has no ability to design and program entirely new genes for entirely new traits.

What about genetic and biological similarities between species? Genetic information, like other forms of information, cannot happen by chance, so it is more logical to believe that genetic and biological similarities between all forms of life are due to a common Designer who designed similar functions for similar purposes. It doesn't mean all forms of life are biologically related! Also, "Junk DNA" isn't junk. These "non-coding" segments of DNA have recently been found to be vital in regulating gene expression (i.e. when, where, and how genes are expressed). Read my popular Internet article: HOW FORENSIC SCIENCE REFUTES ATHEISM

Visit my newest Internet site: THE SCIENCE SUPPORTING CREATION

Sincerely,
Babu G. Ranganathan*
(B.A. theology/biology)

Author of popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

* I have had the privilege of being recognized in the 24th edition of Marquis "Who's Who In The East" for my writings on religion and science, and I have given successful lectures (with question and answer time afterwards) defending creation from science before evolutionist science faculty and students at various colleges and universities

Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter
Roiikka-Ta P Globetrotter

but what is that tail for on some of them? to keep them straight in the air? i noticed that some have wings, some have a tail. is this so..?

leo sullivan
leo sullivan

@Tom KinterNature doesnt lie? But- Nature has endless examples of mimics hostile and perverse. From vipers invisible in their camouflage to to fungi which chnge behavior and Orchids which can mimic the subtleties of insect attraction- and pervert their copulation. What Nature is, is proliferate and inventive. Of course Nature includes deception.

Louis Morelli
Louis Morelli

@michael johnson Evolution is not for believing, it is for you seeing it here and now: watch the embryonic process during 9 months. But, this process occurs because before its beginning there were the parents. If you like to call the natural system that triggered the Big Bang as "God" no problem with that. The natural process of evolution is not described by Darwin neither Modern Synthesis, the neo-darwinism. It is missing there four variables, besides Variation, Selection, Inheritance. It is missing because they are separating Cosmological Evolution and Biological Evolution, but, at Matrix/DNA Theory I have found the missing link: it is the building blocks of natural systems. Everything we see here in this insect, we are able to locate in Nature the forces and elements that did it.  

Louis Morelli
Louis Morelli

@Babu Ranganathan You said: " It takes an already existing cell to bring about another cell."

You are almost right. The living biological cell is the exactly copy of the building blocks of this "Milk Way" (you can see the two pictures, side by side, at my website). Who created this biosphere and the cell system? It was this planet that belongs to a stellar system that belongs to a galactic system. Go there to see the right model of astronomical systems and you will see every detail applied for making the insects' gear.  

k s
k s

@Babu Ranganathan  @Babu Ranganathan: Your shameless self promotion is a little bit laughable and you post stuff like this on so many articles and yet you don't even have a Bachelors of Science let alone a Ph.D in any science to have an in-depth knowledge of what you are refuting. On other articles you have posted so many statements that clearly show you have no idea what you are talking about. There are actually multiple pages about you specifically, that go through the claims you make and show how ridiculous they are yet, you say the same thing over and over and over.You attended Bob Jones a Christian college so, it shows where you are coming from in relation to this topic. There are plenty of places to talk about religion, (I will even be so kind to provide you with links) so while it is a free country it would be great if you got off the science articles if you want to talk about religion and post your musings at a place like this: http://christianchat.com/

Renee Tranel
Renee Tranel

@k s Ah yes...when we are unable to refute things logically or scientifically, we resort to personal insult.  Then, our true self is displayed.

k s
k s

@Renee Tranel @k s If you had read what I wrote carefully I made a statement of Mr.Ranganathan's certifiable qualifications on the subject matter which he posted about, about his very strange statements on this and other articles that seem to be quite out of place, and his very blatant self promotion (he refers back to his articles/website 5+ times). I did not insult him as a person per se. He could be a very nice person for all I know, he may however, take those statements personally, but you are not Mr.Ranganathan are you? I do not need to provide evidence against Mr.Ranganathan as, some of the most brilliant people today already do so in a manner far more eloquent than I ever could in the comment section of an article. I would be more than happy to provide some good links and recommend some books if you would like to read more about the subject. Also the problem with creationism is that it can't be tested or refuted "logically or scientifically" . If I were to say there were magical flying toads but there was no way to see, measure, or detect them in any way  then you can't possibly "prove" me wrong can you? And for all we know maybe there are.  :)

How to Feed Our Growing Planet

  • Feed the World

    Feed the World

    National Geographic explores how we can feed the growing population without overwhelming the planet in our food series.

See blogs, stories, photos, and news »

The Innovators Project

  • Teen Wonder: Taylor Wilson

    Teen Wonder: Taylor Wilson

    After achieving nuclear fusion at age 14, Taylor, now 19, is working with subatomic particles for solutions to nuclear terrorism and cancer.

See more innovators »

Phenomena

See more posts »

Latest News Video

  • How a T. Rex Packs for a Road Trip

    How a T. Rex Packs for a Road Trip

    The nation's most complete Tyrannosaurus rex specimen is taking a 2,000-mile road trip from Montana to its new home in Washington, D.C.

See more videos »

See Us on Google Glass

Shop Our Space Collection

  • Be the First to Own <i>Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey</i>

    Be the First to Own Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey

    The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.

Shop Now »