Scientists at the University of Cambridge have discovered that while we humans pat ourselves on the back for our invention of interlocking gears in actual fact it was nature (as usual) with good old evolution that got there first (Burrows & Sutton 2013).
Young insects of the species Issus coleoptratus use these toothy cogs (see image below) to synchronise their hind legs and ensure maximum power is achieved from a jump. As the insect grows and gets more powerful however this mechanism is jettisoned as the apparatus may not be strong enough to cope with the force produced by the developed insect.
So why are we so excited to find such a basic mechanism in nature? Well what all this really leads to is the design contest between the powers of millions of years of evolution versus the few thousand years of intelligent human life. This is a concept I find truly fascinating and one that I bet we haven’t heard the last of. One of the most prominent questions that still remains in this debate is whether we will find the wheel used for locomotion in animals or whether, in actual fact, legs are and have always been the best way to travel.
One example of where you could argue that nature has already got the t-shirt is the corkscrew motion by which certain types of bacteria get around. To do this they use a flagellum (diagram below), however this method of transport is yet to be observed in multicellular organisms which throws up a fair few questions in term of scalability.
There are of course many who would say that if, in all those years of evolution, nothing has started roving around on wheels then the wheel might not be the best thing since sliced bread after all. Surprisingly enough the US military would be in that club of wheel-doubters, thus spawned the project to create an all-terrain robot that wouldn’t struggle if asked to get over particularly tricky ground; BigDog. This quite terrifying robot has recently been taught to chuck 20kg cinder blocks across a room and can climb slopes up to 35 degrees whilst one of its successors is currently in testing for deployment with the US marines in 2014.
So we might as well just toss our lovely wheels in a skip then? Well I wouldn’t get carried away, the wheel is most certainly a brilliant invention and I’ll bet we as the human race wouldn’t be anywhere near as advanced as we are now without it. Who knows, with the discovery of these toothy gears in insects we may well be on the brink of finding another organism rolling around at the bed of the Mariana Trench. I like to think we might even find Mother Nature is further ahead of us than we thought and for the last billion years she’s been making her sandwiches with evolution-grade sliced bread.
BURROWS, M. and G. SUTTON 2013. Interacting gears synchronize propulsive leg movements in a jumping insect. Science (New York, N.Y.) [online]. 341(6151),pp.1254–6. Available from: http://www.sciencemag.org/content/341/6151/1254 [Accessed September 16, 2013].