Geared for jumping
September 13, 2013 4:44 AM   Subscribe

Intermeshing, rotating mechanical gears have been found in an insect. The gears act to ensure that the legs of the hopping insect move at the same rate when jumping, and are lost during molting to an adult stage. Via reddit, where the journalist is participating. Science magazine report (paywalled).
posted by exogenous (52 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
I blame time travelling Steampunks.
posted by Mezentian at 4:54 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


God, watchmaker.
posted by 256 at 4:54 AM on September 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


This bug's already got a fixie, all it needs to do now is start collecting useless cassette tapes and shack up with some Brooklyn bedbugs.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 5:03 AM on September 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


Ed Yong's also got a great blog post on the geared insect story on his Nat. Geog. blog phenomena
posted by AFII at 5:06 AM on September 13, 2013


As much as Reddit gets crapped on here (for the most part), how amazingly cool is it that the r/science subreddit exists and that the author of the PM article was participating and answering questions?
posted by kuanes at 5:12 AM on September 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


after its final molt into adulthood—poof, the gears are gone. The adult syncs its legs by friction like all the other planthoppers

So in spite of the explanations offered, they probably aren't really necessary at all, just a nice but gratuitous bit of over-engineering.
posted by Segundus at 5:12 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


That amazing insect is a reminder of the beauty and miracle of nature, and hints that we have only scratched the surface of our understanding of the workings of the universe.

But I'd still swat it dead with a rolled up magazine if I saw it on my pillow.
posted by The Deej at 5:21 AM on September 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


This is so freaking cool.
posted by Alex404 at 5:22 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


That amazing insect is a reminder of the beauty and miracle of nature, and hints that we have only scratched the surface of our understanding of the workings of the universe.

Has it been claimed as proof of Intelligent Design yet?
posted by Mezentian at 5:26 AM on September 13, 2013


Sproing.
posted by pracowity at 5:28 AM on September 13, 2013


As much as Reddit gets crapped on here (for the most part), how amazingly cool is it that the r/science subreddit exists and that the author of the PM article was participating and answering questions?

Yeah Reddit is like a teeming metropolis - there's a lot of tacky stuff but also quite a few nooks and corners that have great merit. The fact that AMA's just evolved out of existing functionality to be a headline feature is really interesting. The one a few weeks ago by Kevin Rudd was pretty interesting too.
posted by memebake at 5:33 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: we have only scratched the surface of our understanding.
posted by Segundus at 5:44 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


they probably aren't really necessary at all, just a nice but gratuitous bit of over-engineering.

Mercedes engineers at work in the mysterious animal kingdom.
posted by sonascope at 5:44 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nature beat us to this invention too? Next, they'll discover a bug that microwaves its dinner.
posted by orme at 5:51 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


>after its final molt into adulthood—poof, the gears are gone. The adult syncs its legs by friction like all the other planthoppers

So in spite of the explanations offered, they probably aren't really necessary at all, just a nice but gratuitous bit of over-engineering.


I think it's more that the adult gives up the showy inventiveness of youth and settles down to a nice life of boring responsibilities that don't require exuberant leaping. A family bug's gotta work, you know?
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:52 AM on September 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


So in spite of the explanations offered, they probably aren't really necessary at all, just a nice but gratuitous bit of over-engineering.

The full paper suggests that:
An inherent limitation of gears is that if one tooth breaks, their synchronizing action is degraded. In nymphs, a breakage could be repaired at the next molt, but this is not possible after the final molt to adulthood. Alternatively, the larger size of adults may mean that friction between the trochantera is a more effective synchronization mechanism.
So even if they're not totally necessary for jumping, they might be giving the nymphs a bit of an edge. I can't imagine how you'd test that, other than the implausible-sounding route of polishing a nymph's gear teeth down then watching it jump.

Whatever's going on though, it's damn cool. And that paper cites an earlier paper (free access, I think) that reported finding a screw mechanism in a beetle's leg joint. I also tried to read more about a "cog-wheel valve" found in the hearts of crocodilia. I didn't find a good diagram of the valve itself, which sounds like it's shaped like a cog but doesn't rotate or transmit force, but I did find some gorgeous, hand-drawn illustrations of an alligator heart. I'm pretty sure it's free access, click "download PDF" in the bar at the top of the page.
posted by metaBugs at 5:58 AM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


"So like I say in the article: they're accelerating at 20x the speed that would kill a human. If you dissect one of these suckers, you find all their organ are seat-belted against their exoskeleton. Bolted down so they don't turn to butter. So cool."

Even nature knows wearing seatbelts is important.
posted by jeather at 6:00 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Interacting Gears Synchronize Propulsive Leg Movements in a Jumping Insect
Gears are found rarely in animals and have never been reported to intermesh and rotate functionally like mechanical gears. We now demonstrate functional gears in the ballistic jumping movements of the flightless planthopper insect Issus. The nymphs, but not adults, have a row of cuticular gear (cog) teeth around the curved medial surfaces of their two hindleg trochantera. The gear teeth on one trochanter engaged with and sequentially moved past those on the other trochanter during the preparatory cocking and the propulsive phases of jumping. Close registration between the gears ensured that both hindlegs moved at the same angular velocities to propel the body without yaw rotation. At the final molt to adulthood, this synchronization mechanism is jettisoned.
As always, if anyone would like access to this or other related articles please feel free to memail me with an email I can send a PDF to and a promise not to distribute it further, for the purposes of this academic discussion we are having of course. If you would then return to the thread with questions or insights from the paper, that would then make me incredibly happy.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:03 AM on September 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Despite seeing conclusive evidence I am still trying to get my head around the idea of bacterial flagellum which are flesh that rotates - not like your shoulder joint rotates but more like an engine made of goo [yes, that's a technical term] with an axle that spins and somehow remains connected. It badly annoys my concept of wheels.

And now gears. Great.

I suspect a tiny Prius is lurking inside me now.

Great post exogenous. Thanks.
posted by vapidave at 6:09 AM on September 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


That looks like pretty intelligent design...
posted by Snowflake at 6:15 AM on September 13, 2013


Deleuze and Guattari are right about all being machines connected to machines connected to machines.
posted by mistersquid at 6:20 AM on September 13, 2013


So in spite of the explanations offered, they probably aren't really necessary at all, just a nice but gratuitous bit of over-engineering.

You've just perfectly described most of my projects at work.

Or, in my life, really.
posted by quin at 6:32 AM on September 13, 2013


"That looks like pretty intelligent design..."

Thats really the funny thing, design in biology is, from a human perspective both fantastically stupid and fantastically beautiful at the same time - what it isn't is intelligent. You have many more bones in your spine than you actually need for the range of motion you use, which contributes to the inevitable decline in back strength as we age. Your feet have the number of bones you would expect for a ape that would need to grip tree branches with their feet, but you use your feet much more like a horse does, thus by having many small bones instead of few big ones you are trading strength and durability for no meaningful benefit - diabetics know why this is important. Your eyes are descended from an ancestral eye that happened to have been selected for an inherent flaw in the basic design that the ancestors of Octopi did not - lucky them. You eat, often large blocky things, and drink using the same hole you breathe through. If there is a God of creation that went around designing the genomes of all of the living things on Earth, they are the sloppiest, most frustrating, terrible programmer you could possibly imagine. The Intelligent Design nuts are particularly frustrating to me having seen how fundamentally stupid the design of living critters actually is when you get down to the real moving parts. Looking at life through the lens of Max Delbrück’s slowly fulfilled dream of a science of molecular genetics to replace the stamp collecting of old school Drosophila genetics, the organization of information, regulation, and function in genomes makes precious little intuitive sense in terms of human logic. When you think about it; dumb shit like fundamentally unrelated systems being piled on top of each other such that one can’t be manipulated without fucking up the other – necessitating otherwise functionless patches to the paired system whenever the other is modified, Rube Goldberg-esque fragile systems of regulation that respond to all kinds of wrong stimuli, systems of global regulation that are pretty analogous to reading the same giant program in either Python or C++ to produce one of two desired results, and the kinds of systems that you can just tell are 99.9% amateur patch jobs, are really what you would expect from systems designed exclusively by entropic trial and error.

As a biologist, this is all part of the fun for me, all of the weird things that don't make sense or make a very non-human kind of sense, the amazingly creative things that are so much smarter than anything a human kind of logic could design. All we have here is a weird convergence between the way we think and the way nature does, it happens sometimes, but not so often.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:39 AM on September 13, 2013 [49 favorites]


The real question is: what kind of shifters do they use?



I'm going to say Campy. Yeah, Campy sounds about right.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 6:40 AM on September 13, 2013


There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

also holy cow wow.
posted by Mchelly at 6:42 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I love how this is being reported in Popular Mechanics
posted by skippyhacker at 6:48 AM on September 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Although they are calling these 'gears'. they are not freely rotating circular cogs. We're talking about a semi-circle of teeth at the end of one bone that links into a semi-circle of teeth on the next. So a sort of gear-joint. Or, a joint that instead of being smooth, has intermeshed teeth.

Source: Gif at the bottom of the main article

Still amazing but perhaps not what lots of readers are thinking of.
posted by memebake at 7:07 AM on September 13, 2013


design in biology is, from a human perspective both fantastically stupid and fantastically beautiful at the same time

Exactly this, and that's a wonderful way of putting it.
posted by Akhu at 7:11 AM on September 13, 2013


Although they are calling these 'gears'. they are not freely rotating circular cogs. We're talking about a semi-circle of teeth at the end of one bone that links into a semi-circle of teeth on the next. So a sort of gear-joint. Or, a joint that instead of being smooth, has intermeshed teeth.

Watch movements sometimes have semicircular gears that sort of rock back and forth in an arc rather than spinning around.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:26 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm assuming Issus hasn't been around all that long on the evolutionary scale, so I'm not quite sure why all the quotes regarding intelligent design. What gets me interested is how small random changes combine to make something incrementally complex and whether that's a process we could use to beat our traditional methods of design.
posted by walrus at 7:27 AM on September 13, 2013


"That looks like pretty intelligent design..."

If I were going to pick out a body feature and say it looks too complex to have evolved randomly, I think I'd pick something slightly more complicated than a set of interlocking ridges... The eyeball is the classic example, but you could also go with the pancreas, say. The pancreas is pretty cool.
posted by ook at 7:30 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: we have only scratched the surface of our understanding

That'll buff right out.
posted by yoink at 7:31 AM on September 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


Despite seeing conclusive evidence I am still trying to get my head around the idea of bacterial flagellum which are flesh that rotates - not like your shoulder joint rotates but more like an engine made of goo [yes, that's a technical term] with an axle that spins and somehow remains connected. It badly annoys my concept of wheels.

Well that just blew my mind all apart. Fully functional biological motors. Rotor, stator and everything. With a cool little clockwork mechanism to get it moving.

Huh.
posted by jason_steakums at 7:41 AM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


So even if they're not totally necessary for jumping, they might be giving the nymphs a bit of an edge. I can't imagine how you'd test that, other than the implausible-sounding route of polishing a nymph's gear teeth down then watching it jump.

Looking forward to some amazing nightmares tonight.
posted by running order squabble fest at 7:53 AM on September 13, 2013


Cue creationist cretins screaming "irreducible complexity!" in 3... 2...
posted by Decani at 8:26 AM on September 13, 2013


Never fear, Decani. We'll just sick Blasdelb on 'em!
posted by Atom Eyes at 8:45 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


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."

Is this actually a novel type of gear? I can think of some applications for what he's describing, but it seems like something that we'd have already solved.
posted by jason_steakums at 8:56 AM on September 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm always amazed at the complexity and elegance of the lobster claws I find on the shore after the seagulls are done with them- these articulated bits that just lock together without need for flesh or sinew, like something you'd find in a Lego Bio-Technic set.
posted by Flashman at 9:05 AM on September 13, 2013


Yup they're screaming it.

Of course a gear is tremendously reducible. You can lose a tooth or two and it'll still work fine. Lose the other gear entirely and it's still a higher friction surface than if it were smooth and therefore a massive aid.
posted by edd at 9:12 AM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


"Yup they're screaming it."

I'm still far too busy laughing at the intelligent design argument for the banana to even begin to contemplate this one.
posted by walrus at 10:49 AM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yup they're screaming it.

You'd think a truly intelligent designer would have used this design for more than just some tiny bug, no? Why wait hundreds or thousands (I know millions) of years to inspire mankind to build something similar too? Just think what we could have done with this knowledge after getting chucked out of Eden!!
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:06 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Mezentian: "That amazing insect is a reminder of the beauty and miracle of nature, and hints that we have only scratched the surface of our understanding of the workings of the universe.

Has it been claimed as proof of Intelligent Design yet?
"

Yes, sadly: 2nd post.

So much knowledge out there, so little curiosity. "God dun it!"
posted by IAmBroom at 12:29 PM on September 13, 2013


memebake: "Although they are calling these 'gears'. they are not freely rotating circular cogs. We're talking about a semi-circle of teeth at the end of one bone that links into a semi-circle of teeth on the next. So a sort of gear-joint. Or, a joint that instead of being smooth, has intermeshed teeth.

Source: Gif at the bottom of the main article

Still amazing but perhaps not what lots of readers are thinking of.
"

IRDC what most readers are thinking; these are gears.

Readers can be educated.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:33 PM on September 13, 2013


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."


As metaBugs points out above, it's hard to see how you'd test this hypothesis, but you might be able to at least interrogate it by looking at similar flightless planthoppers and seeing whether they typically have distinctly fewer than half a dozen molts, because if the gears are truly superior, that would exert a selection pressure to molt more just to keep them in good repair.

And stripped gears by themselves might become a trigger for a molt.
posted by jamjam at 12:42 PM on September 13, 2013


...they are not freely rotating circular cogs. We're talking about a semi-circle of teeth at the end of one bone that links into a semi-circle of teeth on the next.

I'm confused, what makes that NOT a sector gear?
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:48 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hey, anyone who did not look at vapiddave's link to the bacterial flagellum motor DO IT NOW.

It's just enough to make your brain melt.
posted by artof.mulata at 1:04 PM on September 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


There's another biological mechanism like this that I'm aware of - the biological screw joint, which is found in the hip joint of a certain weevil in Indonesia. From how I understand it, the joint is used to translate the linear motion of the weevil's muscles into the rotation of the leg. Fascinating stuff.
posted by adecusatis at 1:26 PM on September 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


They all laughed at this. Well, who's laughing now?
posted by MrBadExample at 2:03 PM on September 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Is this actually a novel type of gear? I can think of some applications for what he's describing, but it seems like something that we'd have already solved.

Necessity is the Mother of Invention – wing corkscrews, circa 1939.
posted by cenoxo at 1:17 PM on September 14, 2013


adecusatis: ...the biological screw joint, which is found in the hip joint of a certain weevil in Indonesia.

Published in 2011, this inventive weevil basically employs a reversible, geared worm drive. Looks like first (known insect) gear to me.
posted by cenoxo at 2:23 PM on September 14, 2013


Turned onto their backs, click beetles — some of which are quite beautiful — use a muscle-powered spine and groove mechanism* under their thorax and abdomen (more details) to snap themselves back into the air at over 300 G's. This produces a loud CLICK! that startles predators and puts the beetle back on its feet.

*This ventral microphoto (of a specimen treated to make the chitin transparent) shows two curved, opposing rows of small 'teeth' at the posterior end of the beetle's abdominal notch. In macro photos like this, it looks like the thoracic spine could engage these teeth in some way. Anyone know?
posted by cenoxo at 4:49 PM on September 14, 2013


And no discussion of a juvenile planthopper's leg gears can go by without posting Stephen Dalton's graceful image of a tiny green aesthete: Leafhopper.

(From his unfortunately out-of-print book Borne on the Wind: The Extraordinary World of Insects in Flight.)
posted by cenoxo at 6:20 PM on September 14, 2013


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