In Leaps and Bounds! – Latest Homes – February 26th 2008

As it’s ‘Leap Week’ this week, I thought we’d take a topical delve into the Animal Kingdom to find out who the greatest leaper actually is?

As mammals, we humans are pretty rubbish at jumping but at least we can; for many mammals including elephants, cows, pandas and giraffes, cannot jump at all. Rabbits on the other hand never walk or trot, but always hop or leap, and along with hares, belong to the mammal group lagomorphs – actually meaning “leaping shapes.”

There are many reasons some animals need to jump – escape from predators, to increase speed of locomotion or to launch into flight are the top three. But did you know that the world’s latest high-jump champ is not only British, but might just live in your own back garden too?

It’s called a froghopper, and these 6-mm (¼-inch) long, relatively common insects can spring 70 cm (2 ft 9½ in) into the air, the equivalent of a human being jumping over the Crystal Palace Transmitter!

This is more than twice as high as the former record-holder, the flea, yet the froghopper is much heavier, so it has the most impressive jumping style. The back legs used in jumping are so well-developed in this species that they actually trail behind it when it walks around.

Their jump is in fact so powerful that in the initial stages a G-force of over 400 gravities is generated – truly phenomenal considering that an astronaut rocketing out into orbit experiences G-forces of 5-gravities!

The froghopper can leap more than 100 times its body length. Even the reigning human record holder, Cuban athlete Javier Sotomayor, has cleared only 2.45m (8 ft) – a mere 1.3 times his own height.

Furthermore, unlike frogs, kangaroos and crickets, which can all make use of the leverage provided by their long hind-legs, froghoppers use their relatively short and light back-legs for jumping. So how do they do it?

While their leg muscles are indeed immensely powerful, the secret to the froghopper’s spontaneous quick-fire spring (which takes less than 1 millisecond, i.e. 1⁄1,000 of a second) is a specialized catapult mechanism that locks the legs into the cocked position until sufficient force is built up to break the lock. The legs snap open and all the force is applied at once.

Researchers are still looking into the mechanism used by the froghopper to store this energy needed to propel itself so high, as it is still far from understood.

Can you imagine if we could jump like froghoppers? Actually, I’m not sure if anyone of human size would want to jump like a froghopper – or even a frog, for that matter. Because it’s one thing to leap … but it’s quite another to land!

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