How Do These Little Larvae Jump so Far without Any Legs to Help Them?

Researchers have captured in close detail how larvae leap and jump, without having any legs to push them off the ground.
Fabienne Lang

Legless? That doesn't stop these little three millimeter-long larvae from leaping up to 30 times their body length. What's all the more interesting is that scientists have finally caught the phenomenon on camera. 

Jumping larvae with no legs are not the news here, as this has been a known phenomenon within the insect world, but catching the movements on tape is what's new and fascinating. 

Published on Thursday in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the findings were detailed by researchers from Duke University in the U.S.


How do the larvae leap up without any legs?

The little larva creates a full circle with its body, attaching its head to its tail, and squeezes some fluid into its tail section. By swelling it and raising the pressure, the larva will use the momentum and tension, unsticking its head from its tail to be launched up into the air. 

Sometimes it can leap up to 20 or 30 times its own body-length in distance in mere seconds.

The larvae then have to depend on the direction of the wind, because they have no way of directing their flight path, or landing zone. It's a bit of hit and miss, but they still manage to leap up and away. 

Quite a nifty trick for a tiny bug without any legs or wings. 

The team of researchers at Duke University have named the motion 'hydrostatic legless jumping.'

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The news that larvae can jump isn't really the news here at all, as scientists have known different types of larvae that leap up in the air. What's interesting is that the team were able to capture the movements with their ultra-speed camera. 

How Do These Little Larvae Jump so Far without Any Legs to Help Them?
A scanning electron microscope image shows the 1-micron projections on the adhesive patches of a leaping gall midge larva. Researchers aren't sure yet what makes them so sticky. Source: Grace Farley/Duke University

Capturing the leaping on camera

The video camera used in this project was able to snap 20,000 frames per second, and the team also used scanning electron microscopes to see the larvae clearly. 

The species of worm, or larvae, is not one that has been particularly researched. It's one of several dozens of types of gall midges that feed off goldenrods - a beautiful yellow flowering plant.

This particular bright-orange worm feeds off the white-colored goldenrods and hasn't even been officially named yet. 

"They're really small and inconspicuous, so not a lot of people study them," said Michael Wise, a biologist at Roanoke College and someone who researches goldenrods and the larvae that live off of them. 

It was Wise who began the project, alongside Sheila Patek who's lab ran the analyses.

It took the team many hours of photographing and filming the leaping little worms, who typically, and quite impressively, jumped out of the frame of the camera lens.

The reason the gall midge worms jump? Usually to find burrows and to pupate - to turn into moths. But this particular species of larvae don't even leave the goldenrod to pupate, so why the need to jump?

Wise suggested it may simply be an evolutionary leftover skill. 

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