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Honolulu Lite

by Charles Memminger

Friday, June 9, 2000

Scientists put finger
on gecko’s gift

GECKOS got fingers. Toes, too. And scientists have been wondering for decades exactly how those tiny digits work; how they allow the little buggers to walk along a ceiling as easy as crossing a table top.

In Hawaii, we always knew geckos were special. We just didn't know that geckos, with their ability to defy gravity, were such serious targets of research.

Then I saw a wire service story that said scientists at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., have discovered that the gecko's clingability is not due to suction or stickiness, but to an electric reaction on a molecular level.

This should really embarrass Hawaii's scientists in charge of studying little critters. We're busy fooling around with cloning green mice while scientists in some other state -- a state that doesn't even HAVE geckos -- is snagging the national spotlight with important breakthroughs in gecko-related research. You probably can't even walk through a University of Hawaii science lab without tripping over a gecko, yet none of our guys has bothered to figure out how gecko toes and fingers work.

And, this is important stuff. It may not be up there with the Big Bang Theory, but the gecko-ceiling suspension phenomenon is a real scientific mystery.

All the way back in 1923, naturalists were scratching their heads over it. In the book, "Amphibia and Reptiles," published by Cambridge University -- ANOTHER place that doesn't have geckos -- the authors wrote: "The apparatus is complicated in its minute detail, but is very simple in principle. The adhesion is (not) effected by sticky matter but by small and numerous vacua." (Vacua are little suction thingies, sort of like microscopic toilet plungers.)

But the investigators back then really didn't understand the technology behind gecko suspension. "The more we ponder over the mechanism of their fingers and toes, the less we comprehend how such little vacua can support or suspend such heavy creatures from a dry and often porous surface," wrote the authors.

THERE'S something kind of funny about people with important diplomas hanging on their walls, consumed with the toes and fingers of a bug-eyed lizard. But think about it: Wouldn't YOU like to be able to climb a wall or scamper across a ceiling?

That's part of the reason the Oregon scientists have been playing "this little piggie" with geckos. They want to develop synthetic gecko feet that could be used by search-and-rescue robots to climb walls. If they get that far, you can bet some entrepreneur will come up with gecko mitts for humans just for sport.

The way the Oregon brainiacs explain how gecko feet and hands work is really technical and difficult to understand. They do that on purpose. Basically, geckos have about a half-million tiny hairs on each foot and hand, and each hair has 1,000 tinier pads, smaller than the wavelength of light. They think some electric reaction occurs between these teeny pads that allows a gecko to support its entire weight with a single finger.

The researchers said a million of those hair-like fibers could fit on a dime and could lift a 45-pound child, which, you gotta admit, would be fun to watch.

We'd better get cracking if we are going to close the Gecko Gap. If anyone's going to hang from a ceiling, it should be someone from Hawaii.

Charles Memminger, winner of
National Society of Newspaper Columnists
awards in 1994 and 1992, writes "Honolulu Lite"
Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Write to him at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,
P.O. Box 3080, Honolulu, 96802
or send E-mail to or

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