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The Physics of Geckos

February 2, 2009 on 1:12 pm | In Life, Physics |

Sure, geckos are cute little lizards. They’ve even been made famous in households across the country by certain car insurance companies. But geckos are pretty miraculous in a way that would make even Spider-Man jealous:

Geckos can climb almost anything. Pretty much any surface, however slick, sheer, or wet, can be climbed upon by a gecko, whether completely upright, inverted, or even upside-down. If you live in a tropical climate, you may even notice geckos running rampant on your ceiling:

But unlike common adhesives, such as tape or suction cups, geckos work in a far more sophisticated way; let’s find out how.

The key lies in the way the gecko’s feet work. Unlike other animals, each toe of a gecko’s foot contains hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of tiny, tiny hairs known as setae. These setae are only a tenth of a millimeter long, or about half the size of a typical paramecium.

What’s even more amazing is that each single seta, as you can see above, branches into about 1,000 different endings, each one ending in a tip known as (no joke) a spatula. These spatulae are so small that they can’t be seen with visible light; it takes ultraviolet light just to see these things, which measure in at just about 0.2 microns apiece.

So, on average, each one of a gecko’s four feet contain about a billion of these microscopic spatulae. But what makes them so special? Van der Waals forces. The way these work is pretty simple, and it works similarly to how you can rub an inflated balloon on your cotton shirt, stick it to the wall (or your hair), and have it stay, held up by static electricity.

Well, Van der Waals forces work the same way, except the edges of the spatulae get a random charge, either + or - on the tip. When they come near a surface, it causes a charge separation on the surface, and this makes a small, close-range, temporary attraction, like so:

When you get many of these together, they can form a lattice, and result in an extremely large force. The charges will change over time, but as long as they all change together, the attractive force will remain strong, and thus the gecko will remain stuck to the wall.

There’s one exception, though. What if there were a material that didn’t allow charges to separate? What if there were a material that was immune to forming these induced charges? Well, there is, and it’s teflon. Its molecular structure is so stable (thanks to the carbon-fluorine bonds) that the gecko’s spatulae can’t alter the electric charges at all, and hence there are no Van der Waals forces. (Alright, there are only very small Van der Waals forces, insufficient to allow a gecko to stick to it.) Teflon is the only known thing that a gecko cannot stick to.

And so what can we learn from this? Well, if you can reproduce this, if you can artificially build something with setae and spatulae on it, it could stick to just about anything, too, right?

Might as well see for yourself:

And that’s the physics of geckos. Better get those tiny hairs growing if you want to end up like Spider-Man, kids!


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  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. It reminded me of this fantastic conversation I had while working at the American Museum of Natural History, with a herpetologist Christopher Raxworthy about his fieldwork on chameleons in Madagascar. Now I can appreciate the physics behind the screaming gecko he screamed at :) On a biological side note, I’ve always thought it pretty neat that certain species of horned lizards can squirt blood from their eyes as a defense mechanism.

    Comment by Tamara — February 4, 2009 #

  2. I have seen that; what a bizarre defense mechanism!

    Ironically, the gecko research was done at Lewis and Clark College, which is right here in Portland. Even more surprising is that one of my friends in town is a coauthor on the study! (I didn’t even find that out until after I wrote the article.) Small world…

    Comment by ethan — February 4, 2009 #

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    Comment by Denver — August 18, 2009 #

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  13. Hi guys,
    would you be so nice and post a video of gecko on a teflon pan?? I need it for the scientific purposes.
    Thank you very much in advance.

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