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See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 5

Tiny Gears Power Leaping Liftoffs

Issus coleoptratus
Issus coleoptratus



Courtesy of Malcolm Burrows

The insect Issus coleoptratus cannot fly, but it can certainly jump. The diminutive bug belongs to the taxonomic grouping Fulgoromorpha, commonly known as the plant hoppers. When researchers noticed that the legs of I. coleoptratus move within 30 microseconds of perfect synchrony, it became clear that the insects have more than just a spring in their step. In fact, they have gears at the base of their legs, as biologists in the U.K. revealed with a scanning electron microscope.

The plant hopper is the first animal known to grow functional, interlocking gears on its body, which synchronize the propulsive thrusts of the insect's hind legs. The researchers published the discovery in September in Science.

The gear mechanism appears to have a limited window of usefulness. As I. coleoptratus transitions from a nymph to an adult, its gears disappear. The insect's liftoffs actually get faster with age as it develops different jumping techniques, leaving the gears behind like a set of cast-off training wheels.

This article was originally published with the title "What is It?."

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