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Why Some Climbing Geckos Lose Their Stick

Jan 09, 2015 05:14 PM EST

Geckos are known for their extremely adept climbing talents, able to scale walls and ceilings, but new research shows that over the course of evolution some gecko species can lose their stick.

According to a report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the adhesive system that allows geckos to cling to surfaces can be simplified, or entirely removed in order to make way for other survival advantages. This phenomenon can also be seen in snakes, which over time lost their limbs.

"The removal of the constraints associated with adhesion allowed those gecko species to either run faster or burrow," lead researcher Timothy Higham said in a statement. "The end result is diversification."

The secret behind geckos' normally sticky feet lies in the hundreds of microscopic hairs, or setae, found on their toes. Each seta splits off into hundreds of even smaller bristles called spatula, which, when they come in contact with a wall or ceiling, initiate forces that allow them to scurry across surfaces at 20 body lengths per second. Not to mention that this wall climbing requires little to no energy.

But despite its obvious advantages in the wild, losing their sticky feet can also make way for morphological features that allow geckos to occupy a new niche.

"Like the adhesive system used by geckos, the prehensile tail in several vertebrates groups, is an innovation that allows these animals to climb effectively and likely in areas where other animals cannot go," Higham explained.

So in short, the benefits outweigh the costs. Though researchers aren't always clear as to what those benefits are or if eventually certain characteristics are simply too costly to maintain, leading to loss of adaptations of species.

"Why structures are lost can tell us a lot about the function of a certain trait, and it can tell us about the selective pressures on the animal," Higham said. "The idea that losing something is biomechanically beneficial is fairly new, and opens the door to a number of research areas."

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