Nature Got There First

One of the most important developments in the industrial revolution was the ability to produce interlocking gears; by having teeth on wheels of the same circumference, power can be distributed evenly, or by using wheels of different sizes, power and speed can be interchanged, allowing for precision and co-ordination of different processes.  In machines such as windmills, when the teeth of the wheels could be shorn off when the wind blew too fast, the teeth were often detachable and made of wood, so they could be easily repaired. All of which is incredibly clever, and is integral to every mechanical operation.

But a recent discovery shows that gearing was in nature long ago.

The Issus leafhoppr is the first insect to be found to use interlocking gears. Gregory Sutton of Bristol University wrote in a recent article in the magazine Science:  “We usually think of gears as something that we see in human designed machinery, but we’ve found that is only because we didn’t look hard enough.”

The leafhopper has a set of curved, cog-like strips of opposing ‘teeth’ that interlock with each other, allowing the young to jump into the air by their legs moving synchronously.  Each tooth has a rounded corner where it connects with its opposing number, an identical feature to man-made gears, designed to absorb shock and to prevent them shearing off during movement. The movement was captured on high speed video, ans show the legs moving withing 30 millionths of a second of each other; such synchronisation using nerves would be far too slow.

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