Research Shows How Tiny Insect Pirouettes Mid-Air To Land On Its Feet

By Avner Meyrav and Anouk Lorie, NoCamels February 18, 2013 Comments

Beware, cats: You are no longer the only creature with the exceptional ability to always land on your feet! A new Israeli study says the plant lice, also known as aphid, can comfortably throw itself off any 20-centimeter “skyscraper” and be none the worse for it.

Researchers at the University of Haifa and the Technion, Israel’s Institute of Technology used special high-speed cameras, which record 1,000 frames per second, to track the exact movement of the plant lice. Apparently, the aphids, only a few millimeters in length, landed on their “feet” 95 percent of the time when falling from a height of at least 20 centimeters.

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Aphids spend most of their lives on plants, nourishing on plant sap. However, they are not the plant’s sole occupiers; danger, in form of ominous ladybugs, often lurks between the leaves. In order to escape its predator, the plant lice drops off the edge of the leaves, with hopes of landing on one closer to the ground, since the ground itself also presents a threat to the insect.

When observing the tiny insects falling habits (so to speak), researchers noticed that a simple maneuver allows it to perform a mid-air rotation to land the right side up. When the aphid senses danger and drops off the leaf, it straightens both its hind-legs and its antennas in an angle that causes air resistance that allows it to rotate into a landing position.

The mechanics of the plant lice’s fall are quite impressive: it seems that once its body is “locked” in the falling position, it constantly corrects itself to ensure landing on its feet. This mid-air pirouette maneuver takes about two tenths of a second to perform.

A possible explanation for this behavior, according to the researchers, is that the aphids have sticky pads at the bottom of their legs. That is why falling on a leaf, on their legs, gives the insect a good chance of survival, by clinging to the leaves.

The ground would be a more unfortunate place for the creatures to fall, since they cannot feed off it and may die of starvation or dehydration. Also, there are many other predators on the ground that pose a threat to them. If they do not land on their legs, clinging to the leaf may prove impossible, the researchers say.

The study was conducted by Dr. Moshe Gish and Professor Moshe Inbar from the Department of Evolutionary & Environmental Biology in the University of Haifa, alongside Dr. Gal Ribak and Research Professor Daniel Weihs from the Faculty of Aerospace, and the Technion Autonomous Systems Program (TASP).

The study was recently published in the Current Biology Journal.

Photo by Lennart Tange

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