50 years ago, scientists thought they knew why geckos had sticky feet

Excerpt from the September 6, 1969 issue of Science News

gecko underside

STICKY FEATS  Each of a tokay gecko’s (Gekko gecko) four feet has nearly 500,000 tiny hairs that help the nocturnal reptiles stick to glass and other slick surfaces.

Udo Schröter/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Scanner solves puzzle

The secret of what enables the agile gecko lizard to stroll upside-down across glass and perform other remarkable sticky-footed feats has been revealed…. Microscopic suction cups provide Gekko gecko his phenomenal grip. Using a scanning electron microscope, … [Joseph F.] Gennaro observed that the chevron-shaped pads on the lizard’s toe were composed of an array of brushlike structures called setae … capped by minute suction cups which help the lizard cling to the surface. — Science News, September 6, 1969


Gennaro was partly correct. Gecko feet don’t have suction cups, but the feet have enough tiny setae — hundreds of thousands — to increase adhesion via van der Waals forces, which are very weak forces between molecules. Collectively, the hairs create enough adhesive force for the reptiles to stick even to slick surfaces, scientists discovered in 2000. Gecko feet have inspired new materials and technology, such as a robotic gripper for grabbing space junk (SN: 6/28/17) and hand pads to help people climb glass panes (SN: 11/18/14).

About Kyle Plantz

Kyle Plantz is the program assistant for the National Association for Media Literacy Education and a solutions specialist for the Solutions Journalism Network. He is also a former editorial assistant for Science News.

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