Mechanics of robust and releasable adhesion in biology: Bottom-up designed hierarchical structures of gecko

Haimin Yao, Huajian Gao

Research output: Journal article publicationJournal articleAcademic researchpeer-review

274 Citations (Scopus)


Gecko and many insects have evolved specialized adhesive tissues with bottom-up designed (from nanoscale and up) hierarchical structures that allow them to maneuver on vertical walls and ceilings. The adhesion mechanisms of gecko must be robust enough to function on unknown rough surfaces and also easily releasable upon animal movement. How does nature design such macroscopic sized robust and releasable adhesion devices? How can an adhesion system designed for robust attachment simultaneously allow easy detachment? These questions have motivated the present investigation on mechanics of robust and releasable adhesion in biology. On the question of robust adhesion, we introduce a fractal gecko hairs model, which assumes self-similar fibrillar structures at multiple hierarchical levels mimicking gecko's spatula ultrastructure, to show that structural hierarchy plays a key role in robust adhesion: it allows the work of adhesion to be exponentially enhanced with each added level of hierarchy. We demonstrate that, barring fiber fracture, the fractal gecko hairs can be designed from nanoscale and up to achieve flaw tolerant adhesion at any length scales. However, consideration of crack-like flaws in the hairs themselves results in an upper size limit for flaw tolerant design. On the question of releasable adhesion, we hypothesize that the asymmetrically aligned seta hairs of gecko form a strongly anisotropic material with adhesion strength strongly varying with the direction of pulling. We use analytical solutions to show that a strongly anisotropic elastic solid indeed exhibits a strongly anisotropic adhesion strength when sticking on a rough surface. Furthermore, we perform finite element calculations to show that the adhesion strength of a strongly anisotropic attachment pad exhibits essentially two levels of adhesion strength depending on the direction of pulling, resulting in an orientation-controlled switch between attachment and detachment. These findings not only provide a theoretical foundation to understand adhesion mechanisms in biology but also suggest possible strategies to develop novel adhesive materials for engineering applications.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1120-1146
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of the Mechanics and Physics of Solids
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • A. Adhesion and adhesives
  • B. Anisotropic material
  • B. Biological material
  • B. Bottom-up designed structures
  • B. Contact mechanics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Condensed Matter Physics
  • Mechanics of Materials
  • Mechanical Engineering


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