By Tanya Lewis, Staff Writer | September 12, 2013 02:00pm ET
Gears are ubiquitous in the man-made world, found in items ranging from wristwatches to car engines, but it seems that nature invented them first.
A species of plant-hopping insect, Issus coleoptratus, is the first living creature known to possess functional gears, a new study finds. The two interlocking gears on the insect's hind legs help synchronize the legs when the animal jumps.
"To the best of my knowledge, it's the first demonstration of functioning gears in any animal," said study researcher Malcolm Burrows, an emeritus professor of neurobiology at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
Burrows and a colleague captured the gears' motion using high-speed video. As the young bug prepares to leap, it meshes the gear teeth of one leg with those of the other, like cocking a gun. Then, the insect releases its legs in one smooth, explosive motion.
Hopping in sync
Each leg sports a curved strip of 10 to 12 gear teeth that attach to the trochantera on the insect's legs. These structures were described in 1957, but no one had demonstrated that the gears were functional, Burrows told LiveScience.
nsects' hind legs can be arranged in two ways. The legs of grasshoppers and fleas move in separate planes at the sides of their body, whereas those of champion jumping insects, such as planthoppers, move beneath their body along the same plane. Thus, planthoppers' legs need to be tightly coupled. "If there were to be a slight timing difference between the legs, then the body would start to spin," Burrows said.
The gears synchronize the movement of the hind legs to within about 30 microseconds of each other — much faster than the nervous system could achieve, according to the study findings, detailed in the Sept. 13 issue of the journal Science.
Sometimes, Burrows observed that the gears slipped past one another, but when they finally engaged, the two legs became synced.
Burrows did an experiment with a dead planthopper: When he pulled one of its legs, both of them extended rapidly. Thus, the mechanics of the skeletal system alone can synchronize the legs, he said.