Biologists Discover Gears in Insect's Legs

It's the only animal known to have them

By Kevin Spak,  Newser Staff

Posted Sep 14, 2013 6:47 AM CDT

(Newser) – We're pretty sure the ancient Greek mechanics who invented the gear weren't copying the Issus coleoptratus, but if they'd had an electron microscope, they could have. In a paper published this week in Science, a pair of biologists reveal that young specimens of these relatively common bugs have interlocking gears where their legs meet, Smithsonian Magazine reports. It's the only known instance of mechanical gears appearing in nature. “We usually think of gears as something that we see in human-designed machinery, but we’ve found that that is only because we didn’t look hard enough,” says one of the researchers.

Bugs from the Issus genus are also called "plant hoppers" for their prodigious jumping ability. But to achieve those jumps, the insect needs to move its legs at almost precisely the same time, something the gears elegantly allow it to do. According to National Geographic, one leg moves within 30 microseconds of the other, which is a lot faster than the two or three milliseconds grasshoppers manage. Perhaps the craziest part? The gears' teeth have filleted curves at the base, a trick humans use in our own gears to avoid wear and tear. When the insects mature, however, they lose their gears, relying on friction instead. (In other animal-kingdom news, the blobfish has earned "world's ugliest animal" honors.)

An Issus Coleoptratus.
An Issus Coleoptratus.   (Wikimedia/Sarefo)
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