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Insect Gears

September 16, 2013

Some insects’ legs have gears that look and function like the classic man-made invention.



Insects that get in gear. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Cog wheels connecting the hind legs of the plant hopper. (Burrows/Sutton)

Humans have been building gears into machines since ancient times. But insects called planthoppers may have developed gears long before us. British researchers Malcolm Burrows and Gregory Sutton found that immature planthoppers, or nymphs, have toothed gears built into their hind legs. Burrows, a neurobiologist at the University of Cambridge, says the gears look and function just like the man-made kind.

MALCOLM BURROWS (University of Cambridge, England):

There’s nothing like it being reported in animals at all. It’s never been thought that it’s something that animals ever use. So this is quite a surprising finding.

The gears synchronize the hind legs with remarkable accuracy, on the scale of microseconds. That helps the nymphs make quick, powerful jumps. Burrows was struck by how closely humans unintentionally copied nature in the invention of gears. I’m Bob Hirshon for AAAS, the Science Society.