How sticky toepads evolved in geckos
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- Pastor Chui
Biomimetics is all about design – intelligent design, mimicking the superb designs found in nature. Why, then, are some scientists claiming evolutionary theory is where the biomimetic beef is?
PhysOrg filled its coverage with the e-word evolution or its derivatives no less than 15 times. The amazing thing, though, is that believing the research paper requires accepting the authors’ claim that geckos “evolved” their intricate toe pads that allow them to walk on walls and ceilings multiple times: “Geckos have independently evolved their trademark sticky feet as many as 11 times, and lost them nine times, according to research published June 27 in the open access journal PLoS ONE.” The lead author, Tony Gamble (U of Minnesota) seemed astonished himself at the gecko’s luck in the mutational lottery: “To discover that geckos evolved sticky toepads again and again is amazing,” he exclaimed.
What, exactly, does evolutionary theory contribute to the engineers who want to copy gecko technology? It’s not apparent how speculating about gecko habitat changes in the unobservable past would help a design engineer, nor does this statement by a co-author of the paper: “The loss of adhesive pads in dune-dwelling species is an excellent example of natural selection in action.” Where does he put that on the design specifications, if he is trying to use intelligent design? Maybe this statement about repeated evolution will help:
Repeated evolution is a key phenomenon in the study of evolutionary biology. A classic example is the independent evolution of wings in birds, bats and pterosaurs. It represents a shared solution that organisms arrived at separately to overcome common problems.
The best attempt to give evolution credit is at the end of the PhysOrg article. Play engineer and see if it tells you how to design a sticky-foot robot any better than if you didn’t know anything about gecko evolution, but were just intrigued by the mechanism on living geckos:
While scientists have a good understanding of how geckos stick at the microscopic level, they are just beginning to understand how geckos use their adhesive toepads to move around complex environments in the wild. Learning how gecko toepads have evolved to move in nature is an important step in developing robotic technologies that can do similar things. “It’s one thing to stick and unstick a piece of ‘gecko tape’ to a smooth surface in a lab, but something else altogether to get a robotic gecko to move across a complicated landscape in the real world and stick to all the different shapes and textures it will encounter,” says Gamble. Examining the repeated evolution of gecko toepads will let scientists find common ways natural selection solved these problems and focus on the characteristics shared across different gecko species.
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