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High-jump champion bug

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At just over a quarter of an inch long, the lowly spittlebug can nevertheless take mighty leaps to heights that can exceed 100 times its body length (see graphic).

Now scientists have uncovered the mechanism behind the high hops. Essentially it’s nature’s version of a technology the armies of King Tut and Genghis Khan would use to great effect – the compound bow.

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Back in the day, a compound bow had a wooden core laminated with materials like horn and sinew. The different materials were located in just the right places to give the weapon far more release energy than wood alone could provide. For the spittlebug, also called a froghopper, the “bows” are part of its skeleton.

Researchers at the University of Cambridge in Britain and Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University analyzed the bug’s version of these structures, called pleural arches, and found that they too are a composite.

In this case, the materials include a hard cuticle and a flexible protein known as resilin. As the bug gets ready to soar, its muscles bend the arch. On release, the froghopper launches skyward with a force that can rise to more than 400 times the bug’s body mass. And, the scientists say, it can sustain it’s “crouch” for long periods and make repeated jumps without damaging itself.

The results appear in the current issue of the online journal BMC Biology. Now, about that contract with Nike shoes.

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