The roughness and wettability of surfaces exploited by free-ranging geckos can be highly variable and attachment to these substrates is context dependent (e.g., presence or absence of surface water). Although previous studies focus on the effect of these variables on attachment independently, geckos encounter a variety of conditions in their natural environment simultaneously. Here, we measured maximum shear load of geckos in air and when their toes were submerged underwater on substrates that varied in both surface roughness and wettability. Gecko attachment was greater in water than in air on smooth and rough hydrophobic substrates, and attachment to rough hydrophilic substrates did not differ when tested in air or water. Attachment varied considerably with surface roughness and characterization revealed that routine measurements of root mean square height can misrepresent the complexity of roughness, especially when measured with single instruments. We used surface roughness power spectra to characterize substrate surface roughness and examined the relationship between gecko attachment performance across the power spectra. This comparison suggests that roughness wavelengths less than 70 nm predominantly dictate gecko attachment. This study highlights the complexity of attachment in natural conditions and the need for comprehensive surface characterization when studying biological adhesive system performance.
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