Flexible Armor: Mysterious Seahorse Astounds Scientists


Minerals comprise 65 percent of a cow bone, for example, and that bone would shatter under severe compression.

But the seahorse's bony plates are only about 40 percent mineral. The rest is organic compounds and water, so the plates eventually deform at compression beyond 50 percent, but they don't break.

"We had expected the bony plates to break," Porter said. "But most of the load (from compression) was transferred to the tissue that connects the overlapping plates as they slide past each other."

So presumably, a live seahorse that is caught in the jaws of crab should be able to go on with its life if it is compressed no more than 50 percent. It will likely find a piece of coral and wrap its remarkable tail around it and hang around for another day.

And that's pretty much what the engineers would like to reproduce.

They want to build a "gripping device" that can operate in hostile environments, like the ocean, while protecting itself from predators with some kind of armor that can withstand incredible forces.

Such a device could be useful in applications ranging from unmanned bomb detonation to -- if they can make it small enough -- medical tools that could work inside the human body.

"We think we can assemble something that's based on the seahorse," McKittrick said. "At least that's what we're trying to do. We haven't done it yet."

Incidentally, the researchers didn't have to kill the seahorses for their experiments. The animals were on their way from Bali, Indonesia, to join the aquarium at nearby Scripps Institute of Oceanography when they "died, due to stress, during transport," the study notes.

Of course, scientists and engineers have tried to borrow from nature for centuries. The Wright brothers, in their quest to build a flying machine, studied pigeons. Fortunately, they were smart enough to figure out that flapping wings is probably not the way to go.

Today, however, researchers around the world are trying to mimic biological systems, and they have turned to some of nature's most ingenious designs.

Scientists at Helsinki University, Finland, unraveled the mystery of how a water spider can walk on water. They produced a material that is so buoyant that a boat made from one pound of the stuff could carry 1,000 pounds. That's about five kitchen refrigerators.

The spider's secret -- its superlight construction -- led to aerogels, made from plant cellulose and air, that are so light the researchers described them as "solid smoke."

Scientists at Britain's West Chester University turned to whales and dolphins to improve the design of turbines. That work was led by a guy with an appropriate name: Frank Fish. Honest.

Ohio State University scientists are caught up in cockroaches these days.

This "biological and engineering marvel," as they described it, can run fast, turn abruptly, and react to an obstruction in its path faster than a nerve impulse can travel. Ideal model for all terrain vehicles in space, and on earth.

Others are looking at caterpillars for soft robots, bats for better radar, squid for camouflaging, and on and on.

It appears that nature, indeed, is still the best engineer on the planet.

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