Leaping Forward

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The diminutive planthopper (Issus coleoptratus) is the only creature we know of besides ourselves that uses intermeshed gears for heavy, synchronized lifting. The gears, which look like a comic book model of miniature technology, form the ratchet joint between the planthopper’s back legs.

Gear-like joint of the planthopper (Issus coleoptratus) Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

Gear-like joint of the planthopper (Issus coleoptratus)
Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

They create a smooth response where the insect’s developing system is still incapable of carrying through the complex coordination required when the hopper wants to make one of its signature great leaps from one point to another. The tiny planthopper can jump a meter (3 feet) in a single bound.

The gears are only present while the animal is immature, for while the planthopper’s body is learning to leap forward, it puts such a strain on the joint that the tiny gear teeth tend to break off completely. No worry, the insect is still growing, and with each new molt it emerges with shiny, intact gears, regenerated for further leaps.

Once adult, the hopper develops a system altogether more mature and reliable, without all the breakables.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a final report this week stating that if humans can’t manage to collectively confront the issue of climate change immediately and on a massive scale, we may find ourselves in need of an as-yet-to-be-invented sucking technology to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and put them – where? Underground where we got them? Into outer space?

Abandoned coal mine gear. Photo: Sascha Burkard/123rf

Abandoned coal mine gear.
Photo: Sascha Burkard/123rf

Meanwhile, technologies for better ways to frack natural gas, extract oil from shale, dig deeper to find hidden oil reserves are developing apace.

We’re still in a developmental phases of our progress, still breaking the gear teeth when we want to make great leaps from one point to another.

Maybe the next sloughing phase will see us shed this immature skin, refine and improve our gears and coordination, and take a longer leap forward to where we put our collective minds towards solutions that won’t leave us without a safe place to land.

Planthopper (Issus coleoptratus) Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

Planthopper (Issus coleoptratus)
Photo: Matthew Burrows/National Geographic

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