Sticky situations: big and small animals with sticky feet

Travis in the lab measuring the stickiness of a gecko’s toe.

Travis in the lab measuring the stickiness of a gecko’s toe.

The activities are as follows:

Species are able to do so many amazing things, from birds soaring in the air, lizards hanging upside-down from ceilings, and trees growing hundreds of feet tall. The study of biomechanics looks at living things from an engineering point of view to study these amazing abilities and discover why species come in such a huge variety of shapes and sizes. Biomechanics can improve our understanding of how plants and animals have adapted to their environments. We can also take what we learn from biology and apply it to our own inventions in a process called biomimicry. Using this approach, scientists have built robotic jellyfish to survey the oceans, walking robots to help transport goods, and fabrics that repel stains like water rolling off a lotus leaf.

Travis studies biomechanics and is interested in the ability of some species to climb and stick to walls. Sticky, or adhesive, toe pads have evolved in many different kinds of animals, including insects, arachnids, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. Some animals, like frogs, bats, and bugs use suction cups to hold up their weight. Others, like geckos, beetles, and spiders have toe pads covered in tiny, branched hairs. These hairs actually adhere to the wall! Electrons in the molecules that make up the hairs interact with electrons in the molecules of the surface they’re climbing on, creating a weak and temporary attraction between the hairs and the surface. These weak attractions are called van der Waals forces.

Travis catching lizards in the Dominican Republic.

Travis catching lizards in the Dominican Republic.

The heavier the animal, the more adhesion they will need to stick and support their mass. With a larger toe surface area, more hairs can come in contact with the climbing surface, or the bigger the suction cup can be. For tiny species like mites and flies, tiny toes can do the job. Each fly toe only has to be able to support a small amount of weight. But when looking at larger animals like geckos, their increased weight means they need much larger toe pads to support them.

When comparing large and small objects, the mass of large objects grows much faster then their surface area does. As a result, larger species have to support more mass per amount of toe area and likely need to have non-proportionally larger toes than those needed by lighter species. This results in geckos having some crazy looking feet! This relationship between mass and surface area led Travis to hypothesize that larger species have evolved non-proportionally larger toe pads, which would allow them to support their weight and stick to surfaces.

To investigate this idea, Travis looked at the data published in a paper by David Labonte and fellow scientists. In their paper they measured toe pad surface area and mass of individual animals from 17 orders (225 species) including insects, arachnids, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. From their data, Travis calculated the average toe pad area and mass for each order.

Travis then plotted each order’s mass and toe pad area on logarithmic axes so it is easier to compare very small and very large values. Unlike a standard axis where the amount represented between tick marks is always the same, on logarithmic axes each tick mark increases by 10 times the previous value. For example, if the first tick represents 1.0, the second tick will be 10, and the next 100. As an example, look at the graphs below.

gecko-graph

The left plot shows hypothetical gecko species of different sizes, but with proportional toes. Their mass per toe pad area ratio (g/mm2) varies, with larger species having larger g/mm2 ratios. In this case, larger species have to support more mass per toe pad area. In the right plot, larger gecko species have disproportionally larger toes. These differences change each species’ mass per toe pad area ratios, so that all species, regardless of their size, have the same mass per toe pad area ratio.

Featured scientists: David Labonte, Christofer J. Clemente, Alex Dittrich, Chi-Yun Kuo, Alfred J. Crosby, Duncan J. Irschick, and Walter Federle. Written by: Travis Hagey

Data Nugget Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 10.3

Scaling Up – Math Activity Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.5

There is a scientific paper associated with the data in this Data Nugget. The data was used with permission from D. Labonte.

Labonte, D., Clemente, C.J., Dittrich, A., Kuo, C.Y., Crosby, A.J., Irschick, D.J. and Federle, W., 2016. Extreme positive allometry of animal adhesive pads and the size limits of adhesion-based climbing. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, p.201519459.


dr-fowleriAbout Travis: Ever since Travis was a kid, he was interested in animals and wanted to be a paleontologist. He even had many dinosaur names memorized to back it up! In college he discovered evolutionary biology, which drove him to apply for graduate school and become a scientist. There, he fell in love with comparative biomechanics, which combines evolutionary biology and mechanical engineering. Today Travis studies geckos and their sticky toes that allow them to scale surfaces like glass windows and tree branches.

The Flight of the Stalk-Eyed Fly

Variation between stalk-eyed fly species in eyestalk length.

Variation between stalk-eyed fly species in eyestalk length.

The activities are as follows:

Stalk-eyed flies are insects with eyes located on the ends of long projections on the sides of their head, called eyestalks. Male stalk-eyed flies have longer eyestalks than females, and this plays an important role in the flies’ mating patterns. Female stalk-eyed flies prefer to mate with males with longer eyestalks. In this way, the eyestalks are much like the bright and colorful peacock’s tail. This kind of sexual selection can lead to the evolution of longer and longer eyestalks over generations. But do these long eyestalks come at a cost? For example, longer eyestalks could make it more difficult to turn quickly when flying. As with all flies, stalk-eyed flies do not fly in a straight line all the time, and often zigzag in air. If long eyestalks make quick turns more difficult, we might expect there to be a trade-off between attracting mates and flight.

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 2.45.44 PMMoment of inertia (I) is defined as an object’s tendency to resist rotation – in other words how difficult it is to make something turn. An object is more difficult to turn (has a higher moment of inertia) when it is more massive, and when it is further from its axis of rotation. Imagine trying to swing around quickly holding a gallon of water – this is difficult because the water has a lot of mass. Now imagine trying to swing around holding a baseball bat with a jug of water attached to the end. This will be even more difficult, because the mass is further away from the axis of rotation (your body). Now lets bring that back to the stalk-eyed fly. The baseball bat now represents the eyestalk of the fly, while the gallon of water represents the eye at the end of the stalk. We can express the relationship between the mass of the object (m = mass of the eye), its distance from the axis of rotation (R = length of eyestalk), and the moment of inertia (I) using the following equation: I = mR2.

Because moment of inertia goes up with the square of the distance from the axis, we might expect that as the length of the flies’ eyestalks goes up, the harder and harder it will be for the fly to maneuver during flight. If this is the case, we would predict that male stalk-eyed flies would make slower turns compared to similar sized female flies with shorter eyestalks.

Differences in male and female eyestalk length.

Differences in male and female eyestalk length.

To address this idea, scientists measured the effect of eyestalk length on the moment of inertia of the body needs. In addition, they measured differences in turning performance during flight. Scientists Gal and John tracked free flight trajectories of female and male stalk-eyed flies in a large flight chamber. Because female and male stalk-eyed flies have large differences in eyestalk length, their flight performance can be compared to determine the effects of eyestalk length on flight. However, other traits may differ between males and females, so body size and wing length measurements were also taken. If increased moment of inertia does limit turning performance as expected, the male flies that have significantly longer eyestalks should demonstrate slower and less tight turns, indicating a decrease in free flight performance. If there is no difference in turning performance between males and females with significantly different eyestalk lengths, then males must have a way to compensate for the higher moment of inertia.

Featured scientists: Gal Ribak from Tel-Aviv University, Israel and John Swallow from University of Colorado, Denver. Written by: Brooke Ravanelli from Denver Public School, Zoё Buck Bracey from BSCS, and John Swallow.

Flesch–Kincaid Reading Grade Level = 9.0

Once your students have completed this Data Nugget, there is an extension lab activity where students can conduct their own experiment testing moment of inertia. Students simulate the flying experience of stalk-eyed flies and go through an obstacle course carrying their eyestalks with them as they maneuver through the cones to the finish line. To access this lab, click here!

Video showing how the long eyestalks of males form!