Leaping Bugs Masters of Acceleration
High-speed cameras and a lot of curiosity have led to some amazing photos of muscles. The pics aren’t body builders, but athletes of a different stripe.
One researcher has uncovered the secrets of jumping, hopping and landing among some of the planet’s best engineered creatures: insects. Dr Gregory Sutton, who is working with colleagues at Universities of Cambridge and Bristol, studies the acrobatics of a fleas, grasshoppers, and froghoppers.
What Dr. Sutton has discovered sheds light on the limitations of muscle groups. In order for insects to leap, they must accelerate quickly – almost instantaneously. Yet muscles have upper limits in the amount of energy they can produce.
The way insect engineering has evolved to gain more acceleration is to use “ratcheting” processes, as well as storing energy and springing forward. These methods can be understood by thinking of the energy in a bow and arrow. To shoot the arrow, the bow is drawn back, which takes muscle energy in the arms. But the energy of the pulling back is also stored in the bow itself. Upon release, the stored bow energy is what makes the arrow fly.
Insects have structural components to allow “ratcheting” up before springing. They will even alter how they move in the moments prior to jumping to make sure energy is stored in their legs.
Considering how insects have survived in a tough environment with many larger predators, their ability to leap quickly makes evolutionary sense. The adaptations of hopping and flying are often escape maneuvers.