Functioning ‘Mechanical Gears’ Seen in Nature for First Time

Previously believed to be only human-made, a natural example of a functioning gear mechanism has been discovered in a common insect — showing that evolution developed interlocking cogs …

The gears in the Issus hind-leg bear remarkable engineering resemblance to those found on every bicycle and inside every car gear-box. 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 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.

“By developing mechanical gears, the Issus can just send nerve signals to its muscles to produce roughly the same amount of force — then if one leg starts to propel the jump the gears will interlock, creating absolute synchronicity.

“In Issus, the skeleton is used to solve a complex problem that the brain and nervous system can’t,” said Burrows. “This emphasises the importance of considering the properties of the skeleton in how movement is produced.”

“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,” added co-author Gregory Sutton, now at the University of Bristol.

“These gears are not designed; they are evolved — representing high speed and precision machinery evolved for synchronisation in the animal world.”