Nature’s Gears: A First
Mechanical gears, we typically think, have their roots in engineering. Well, it turns out that nature has gears too: they have been discovered in the juvenile stage of an insect called Issus, which rapidly jumps from one ivy plant to another. This is the first time scientists have discovered functional mechanical gears in nature. This means that nature had evolved and used gears before humans did, and that human-designed gears are biomimetic.
A deeper look at the Issus’ gear mechanism reveals stark similarities to human-designed gears, according to scientists at the University of Cambridge:
Each gear tooth has a rounded corner at the point it connects to the gear strip; a feature identical to man-made gears such as bike gears – essentially a shock-absorbing mechanism to stop teeth from shearing off.
The gear teeth on the opposing hind-legs lock together like those in a car gear-box, ensuring almost complete synchronicity in leg movement – the legs always move within 30 ‘microseconds’ of each other, with one microsecond equal to a millionth of a second.
This is critical for the powerful jumps that are this insect’s primary mode of transport, as even miniscule discrepancies in synchronisation between the velocities of its legs at the point of propulsion would result in “yaw rotation” – causing the Issus to spin hopelessly out of control.
“This precise synchronisation would be impossible to achieve through a nervous system, as neural impulses would take far too long for the extraordinarily tight coordination required,” said lead author Professor Malcolm Burrows, from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.
The Issus uses its gears in its juvenile phase, discarding them when it molts. Scientists speculate that this might be to avoid any permanent damage in the adult phase.
While this discovery was made in 2013, it remains an important milestone in science and in biomimicry. For us at Alchemus Prime, it’s a reminder that nature has much to teach us, if we only take the time to observe and learn.