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Archive for Thursday, July 31, 2003

Spittle bug leaps ahead of flea as highest insect jumper

July 31, 2003

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A common farm pest appears to have leapfrogged over the flea to claim the unofficial title as the world's best jumper.

British researchers say experiments show the spittle bug -- a tiny, green insect that sucks the juice from alfalfa and clover -- can leap more than 2 feet in the air.

That's more than twice as high as the flea, and equal to a man jumping over the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, scientists said.

Malcolm Burrows, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge and the study's lead researcher, analyzed the spittle bug soaring through the air using a high-speed camera. By unlocking the insect's jumping secrets, scientists can better understand how it coordinates its brain, eyes and muscles to escape from predators.

The results appear in today's issue of the journal Nature.

Burrows said the finding was remarkable because the 6 millimeter-long spittle bug -- about the size of a pencil eraser -- is bigger and heavier than the bloodsucking flea, yet still able to outjump its tiny rival by accelerating faster.

The spittle bug reaches its heights by unleashing the large amount of stored energy in its muscular hind legs. When it is not jumping, it uses its smaller forelegs to move around while dragging its hind legs, which are constantly poised for liftoff.

During take-off, the spittle bug accelerates at more than 400 times the force of gravity compared to 135 times of a flea.

A flea is about one-eighth of an inch long. In an American experiment carried out in 1910, a flea jumped nearly 8 inches in the air, and performed a long jump of 13 inches.

The comparison between a spittle bug and a human athlete is no contest. A human jumps with a force of three times his body weight and Olympians barely can jump above their own height. The world track and field record for the high jump is a fraction over 8 feet.

Humans generally cannot tolerate more than three times the force of gravity before passing out, or about the G-force experienced on the scariest rollercoasters.

The spittle bug is found worldwide. In the United States, it is prevalent along the Pacific Coast and east of the Mississippi River.

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