Beautiful Science


Very few animals have a rear end as colourful as this. This iridescent display belongs to the baby of an insect called a planthopper. The radiating filaments are secretions of wax thought to serve various purposes like defence or concealment. They can separate light into its constituent colours, like a rainbow, but the effect is stronger when most of the light comes from a single direction, such as from a torch. Under ambient light, which bathes the insect from all directions, the filaments look mostly white.     

The planthopper is a very slow walker, preferring not to draw the attention of potential predators. But when it needs to get somewhere fast, it hops. So far, so high and so fast that you have no idea where it went.     

Scientists at the University of Cambridge in Britain discovered recently that planthoppers have a sophisticated gear mechanism in their hind legs which ensures that the legs extend and retract in synchrony for the perfect hop.     

These biological gems can be found in Singapore's nature reserves, but it is easy to miss the ant-sized critters unless one keeps a sharp eye out for them.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2016, with the headline 'Beautiful Science'. Print Edition | Subscribe