By now, have we all heard the ancient alien theorists’ expounding on the fact that ancient discoveries were so complex they HAD to come from Aliens? Did aliens jump-start our mechanical evolution? Or was Mother Nature ahead of them all?
Researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered a mind-boggling feat of engineering … in the biological world. Their report detailed in the publication Science in 2013, explains how nature developed a fascinating set of mechanical gears in a commonly known insect. (Photo top right courtesy of researchers Burrows and Sutton.)
Let me introduce you to Issus coleoptratus (commonly called a planthopper), a very small insect that is common in European gardens (photo left). Its back legs are a feat of engineering because at the top of each leg, they have a row of gears whose finely tuned “teeth” mesh together super fast so that the legs propel the insect forward. If the interlocking of the gears was off by the tiniest margin, then I. coleoptratus would go spinning out of control.
According to the article in ScienceDaily.com, “Each gear tooth has a rounded corner at the point it connects to the gear strip; a feature identical to human-made gears such as bike gears – essentially a shock absorbing mechanism to stop teeth from shearing off.”
The co-authors of this study are Malcolm Burrows and Gregory Sutton (now with the University of Bristol). (Photo right of Burrows (R) and Sutton (L).) They revealed that this insect can’t rely on its brain and nervous system to coordinate their jump as quickly as needed. The gears achieve the propulsion in far less time and with absolute coordination between the legs.
Burrows said, “In Issus, the skeleton is used to solve a complex problem that the brain and nervous system can’t. This emphasizes the importance of considering the properties of the skeleton in how movement is produced.”
Sutton added, “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. The gears are not designed, they are evolved – representing high speed and precision machinery evolved for synchronization in the animal world.” (Photo left courtesy of researchers Burrows and Sutton.)
Issus coleoptratus has the gears on their legs in their early stages of development. When they eventually achieve adult size, the gears are gone. The scientists believe this is probably because by that time their legs are strong enough to produce the lift and propulsion that they need to move forward without the gears.
They also mentioned that the gears, though wonderfully evolved, could be problematic. If just one tooth on one gear broke, that would ruin the whole propulsion process. So it’s probably better to outgrow the need for the gears as the legs get longer and stronger.
Gears as Décor
I was surprised to read of other examples where nature has created gears, but used them as decorations, so to speak.
Here is the Cog Wheel Turtle, left (Heosemys spinosa) and the Wheel Bug, right (Arilus cristatus). Scientists say the gears could have been functional at one time then become defunct, or they may still not understand why they are present. (Drawing/photo of H. spinosa by James de Carle Sowerby and photo of A. cristatus by the Hilton Pond Center.)
Burrows and Sutton said that the gears of I. coleoptratus are the first to be seen in nature having an “observable function.”
Are you like me, sick of hearing how everything humanity is and has done and will ever do has been guided, created, tinkered with – whatever, by aliens?
I remember they found some kind of ancient gear centuries old in the Mediterranean Sea and they touted it as proof positive that aliens had been meddling in the ancient world. As though human ingenuity couldn’t have figured it out on its own.
No, I do not believe aliens have been involved in our development. I believe in the human spirit, human ingenuity, human creativity and our own stubbornness to get us through anything and to develop anything we need now and in the future.
Tiny little I. coleoptratus is my buggy hero for showing just how wonderful, amazing, complicated, and awesome our world is.
How do you feel about all this?