August 6, 2022 12.00 pm This story is over 22 months old

It’s a bug’s life: Lincoln professor’s insect research to feature in new Disney film

Gregory Sutton studies the fascinating world of insect motion

A professor at the University of Lincoln with a passion for jumping insects has seen one of his flea videos used in a new Disney film called Chang Can Dunk.

Gregory Sutton, who was born in Wisconsin, USA, is a professor of biomechanics who has worked at the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln for four years.

After having already filmed with Sir David Attenborough, and having one of his in-demand insect movies used in an episode of QI, he was excited that Disney asked to use his work in Chang Can Dunk, which is due for release in 2023, according to IMDb.

Gregory told The Lincolnite Chang Can Dunk follows a young-asian American teen and basketball fanatic who learns how best to jump from a friend in the science world.

The 46-year-old understands there will be three screens in the background of a scene showing various jumping animals – frogs, kangaroos, and his flea.

He believes the best flea videos that exist are the ones he took for the Journal of Experimental Biology which is why people, and Disney, often ask to use them.

Gregory said: “When you study bugs all the time, you don’t get that much reinforcement, so it’s really nice to have this. When [Disney] say ‘we’d like to use your flea movie,’ of course it’s one of the greatest feelings.

“Or like when The Umbrella Academy (on Netflix) had an episode where one of the characters manipulates electric fields for their superpowers.

“Someone is teaching her how to use the power and says you have to learn to hear without your ears like bees use their body hairs to hear electric fields. And I was the one who discovered that.”

Gregory Sutton is a Professor of Biomechanics at the University of Lincoln with a passion for jumping insects. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Grasshoppers are among the insects Gregory is most fascinated by. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

He loves to study the insect jumping, including crickets. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Gregory’s high speed movie about planthoppers which have gears in their legs was used on BBC’s QI with Sandi Toksvig in 2017.

He added: “I have to admit it was overwhelming for me because I used to watch ‘Whose Lines Is It Anyway?’ when I was a teenager in Wisconsin.”

One of Gregory’s personal career highlights was meeting Sir David Attenborough who filmed fleas in Cambridge with him, and Professor Malcolm Burrows from the University of Cambridge. Gregory also filmed with bees with the television legend in Bristol.

The filming was used in episodes of Attenborough’s Natural Curiosities with bees in ‘Shocking Sense’ in February 2014 and fleas in ‘Amazing Feats’ in February 2015. The bees episode included Gregory’s research on ‘How bumble bees use their body hairs to detect floral electric fields’.

He said: “When I was growing up as a teenager in Milwaukee David Attenborough might as well have been King Arthur, he was just a legendary figure who you’re never going to meet or you don’t know anyone who’s met him, he’s just a voice on the television, so to be in the room with him was just a little bit overwhelming.”

Gregory Sutton is a Professor of Biomechanics at the University of Lincoln. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Gregory studies how small animals like fleas, froghoppers and grasshoppers manage to jump “so incredibly high”, which he said generalises into the study of how the fastest moving animals manage to generate their latest motions.

Fleas, froghoppers, grasshoppers, mantis shrimp, and trap-jaw ants “all generate these extremely fast movements by using special latch/spring devices within their bodies,” he adds. He gets the fleas from St Tiggywinkles hedgehog hospital in Buckinghamshire.

Gregory is also fascinated by the high speed filming of insects jumping, saying that a standard video camera works at 30 frames a second. A grasshopper’s jump, for example, is over in a 38th of a second.

Professor Gregory Sutton preparing to film an insect jumping. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Professor Gregory Sutton uses a high speed camera to look at the jumping of insects, including grasshoppers. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

A high speed video camera can go up to 10,000 frames a second and as Gregory points out he is “looking at things that take place during the blink of an eye”. He said a grasshopper jump is a third of an eye blink.

When asked for a fascinating fact about fleas, Gregory decided to myth bust a well-known phrase, saying: “There’s that old statement that if a flea were as big as a human it could jump over St Paul’s Cathedral. Well, it turns out that’s not exactly true.

Due to the fleas having the “same amount of muscle relative to its mass” it can only jump a certain height.

As he already has such a wealth of knowledge about insects, just what drives Gregory to continue researching the topic.

Grasshoppers fascinate the Lincoln-based professor. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Professor Gregory Sutton studies all kinds of insects. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

He said: “What drives me, and I was overwhelmed by this when I started, we know extremely little about insects, like simple questions such as how many species of insects are there.

“If I want to learn something new all I’ve got to do is buy another chunk of grasshoppers, imagine living in that kind of world, where I don’t have to wait for a new book to be written or a new movie to come out. I’ve just got to go to that back garden put some frog hoppers out.”

Professor Gregory Sutton looking in an area he describes as “froghopper heaven”. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

He believes people know “extremely little about insects” and he is passionate about researching the thousands of different species. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Professor Gregory Sutton passionately talking about the subject he loves – insects. | Photo: Steve Smailes for The Lincolnite

Away from the insect world, another interesting fact about Gregory is that he has a famous sister in the world of jazz. Tierney Sutton has been nominated for nine Grammys and also did the score for the Tom Hanks movie Sully, which is also known as Miracle on the Hudson.