The Froghopper’s Incredible Suction

The tiny but mighty froghopper sucks sap out of plants' xylem.

The tiny froghopper feeds on the sap in xylem, a feat that requires overcoming more than a megapascal of negative pressure. Plants, as you may recall, transport water and nutrients from their roots to their leaves through negative pressure, essentially pulling on the water as if it were a rope. So drinking that sap is not as simple as making a hole and waiting for sap to flow. Instead, froghoppers must generate even more suction than the plant. Some scientists have been so skeptical that such a feat is even possible that they’ve disputed whether plants are truly at such high negative pressures.

But a new study shows that froghoppers can, indeed, generate immense suction – up to nearly 1.5 megapascals. (By comparison, humans generate less than a tenth of that suction, even on a stubborn milkshake.) The researchers used two complementary methods to prove the insects’ ability. First, they studied the anatomy of the pumplike structure in the froghoppers’ heads, where the suction is generated, and determined the insects’ sucking potential from a simple calculation of force divided by area. Then, they observed feeding froghoppers in a chamber where they could measure their metabolic rates through carbon dioxide output. As the froghoppers fed, their metabolic rates spiked to 50 – 85% higher than when at rest. Only when the xylem tensions exceeded the theoretical biomechanical limits for froghopper suction did the tiny insects seem to stop feeding. (Image and research credit: E. Bergman et al.; via Science News; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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