Wednesday 5 December 2012

Jumping Jesus! It's the Pygmy Mole Cricket!

Image: Malcolm Burrows
Pygmy Mole Cricket
Actually a grasshopper.
Most insects don't like water. For them, falling into a pond is a desperate situation met with avid thrashing and probable death by drowning or getting eaten by something more au fait with the aquatic lifestyle.

So what's a Pygmy Mole Cricket to do? They can't walk on water. They can't swim through water. They can jump really well on land, but what about on water? They can't do that, can they?

Can they?

Legs take about 0.001 seconds to extend.
Quite fast...

They can.

Which is good, because these blighters live in burrows right near fresh water. I'm sure it affords them splendid views, sweet air and good eating, but there's also the danger of flood. Which is bad. And when you're little bigger than a grain of rice, an overflowing puddle counts as a calamity.

And so they jump. And it's their remarkable jumping that brought them to the attention of zoologist Malcolm Burrows from the University of Cambridge. He was in Cape Town, South Africa, being all zoological in the zoology department there, before he popped out for a sandwich. I guess he sat by the pond for the splendid views and sweet air, though he brought his own good eating.

As he ate, he heard thwacking in the water. "Thwacking". That's what he called it. He took a closer look and saw the tiny, black insects leaping from the pond. Being a zoologist at the zoology department, he decided to get all zoological. It may or may not have involved tearing off his shirt and revealing a giant Z on his chest, but it definitely involved taking a closer look at the tiny, black insects.

With gizmos aplenty, he could see that the Pygmy Mole Crickets were not relying on surface tension like many water walkers do. Indeed, their powerful legs were breaking right through the surface and reaching down into the watery doom beneath.

Image: Malcolm Burrows
They're saved by their special (freakish) feet. Each one is armed (feeted? No...) with several large paddles and 2 long spurs that flare out to increase their surface area and push against the water. As our hero is thrust upward, they close up the paddles to reduce drag. There even appears to be an elastic protein called resilin in there, which is what insects use in jumping and flying. It ensures the paddles spring back into place quickly and energy efficiently.

On land, these athletes can jump a distance of about a metre (3.3 ft), which might be how they fell in the pond in the first place. In water, on this scale a sticky, syrupy soup of death, the fancy footwork allows the Pygmy Mole Cricket to fling itself about 3 cm (1.2 in) from the water's surface.

So it's not a huge distance, but it's enough to make their way to land and not drown. And that's enough, isn't it? If I was on Baywatch and David Hasselhoff saved me from drowning, I wouldn't complain and say that I would've preferred the kiss of life from a different member of the cast! That would be silly!


Come to think of it, I probably would complain. I don't think I'd sue, though. That would be silly!



TexWisGirl said...

goofy guy. :)

that kick-off is pretty impressive!

Pini said...

Awesome animal, not only does it escape certain death, it does so while doing a perfect backflip!

Joseph JG said...

@TexWisGirl: It's amazing what you can see when you put everything on slow motion and look reeeeeally closely.

@Pini: You gotta do it with style!

Unknown said...

I watched a non Pygmy do three consecutive backflips on my buddies driveway. Swear to God true story. First time I'd ever seen one, had no idea what it was. It just did backflips in place then crawled back into a crack in the driveway. May sound crazy, but I absolutely promise you it happened. Has anyone else ever seen a mole cricket do backflips like this?

Joseph JG said...

Haha! That's crazy! I've never heard of anything like that. Perhaps some kind of weird display? Or maybe it was infected by a parasite that was forcing it to make itself extremely obvious to predators so it would get eaten and the parasite could move on to its next host?

Sounds strange whatever it was!