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Science AMA Series: I’m Travis Hagey, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Michigan State University studying the sticky toes of gecko lizards. AMA!
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I am a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan State University investigating the biomechanics, evolution, and ecology of gecko lizards with special attention to their adhesive toes. I’ve always been interested in figuring out how things work and my research blends that interest with biology. I use an evolutionary approach to understand why animals are shaped the way they’re shaped, This kind of work is sometimes called functional morphology or comparative biomechanics. I specifically focus on the toe pads of gecko lizards, an amazing example of natural nano-technology. Gecko toe pads are a really great system to work with because they have some really unusual mechanics and evolutionary patterns. Unlike other adhesives you may be familiar with (glue, tape, velcro, suction cups), gecko toe pads work completely differently. They are made up of tiny hair-like structures that are much smaller then mammalian hair. These structures are small enough to interact with the surface the gecko is walking on using van der Waals forces (an induced dipole - induced dipole weak intermolecular bond). Simply put, the fact that the gecko hairs are very small and have electrons spinning around them and the surface the gecko is walking on also has electrons spinning around its molecules, results in the gecko hairs being weakly attracted towards the surface. The really interesting part is trying to figure out why there is so much variation across species. Gecko toe pads come in different shapes and their hairs also come in different lengths, diameters, and densities. We’re just now beginning to look into how/why this variation evolved and its affect on performance. With this research, we’ll not only gain a better understanding of how life on our planet has evolved and adapted to different environments, but some of the things we learn can be applied to help solve complex human problems (biomimicry), like sticking to things in space or designing Spiderman gloves. I also have a live crowdfunding project at https://experiment.com/projects/are-the-feet-of-gecko-lizards-adapted-to-different-surface-textures you should check out. I will be back at 1 pm ET to answer your questions, Ask Me Anything! Sorry everybody! There was a scheduling snafu! I’ll be checking this all day on Sunday (4/16) to answer your questions! Also check out a video of a lecture I gave in 2014 at the University of Idaho https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uzmXxp_tjj8