With their beautiful colors, upright swimming abilities and curled up tails, seahorses are magical creatures. Now it turns out, that these seemingly fragile fish are tough enough to weather impact that would destroy most living creatures - So much so, that researchers are planning to mimic their body structure to solve a problem that has been eluding them for many years.
As is often the case, when faced with a tough designing challenge, researchers look to nature for inspiration. In this case, engineers from Jacobs School of Engineering at the University of California, San Diego were looking for a way to develop a device flexible enough to grab an object, but strong enough to withstand forces of nature like hurricanes or deep sea pressures.
They looked at various animals ranging from monkeys who tails are strong enough to support their weight to deer antlers and even armadillo and turtle shells. Nothing quite fit the bill until they came across the seahorse - With its upright body and flexible tail it felt like the right design inspiration. But what blew the scientists away was the result they got when they subjected some dead seahorses to forces strong enough to compress their bodies to half their size.
While such an impact would have smashed any other creature to pieces, it had no effect on the seahorse! As material science professor and lead project researcher Joanna McKittrick succinctly puts it, the results 'bamboozled' - engineering lingo for stunned or astonished - her team.
Further research into this amazing phenomenon showed that the seahorse's spine that runs down its enter body is protected by a number of bony plates, which slide past each other when the animal is being subjected to external pressure. While in normal animals large amounts of compression would result in crushing the plates, it does not happen in the case of the seahorse because its bones are not made completely from minerals and are therefore, not brittle. They instead comprise of only 40% minerals and 60% organic compounds and water, which means that even if the fish is compressed more than 50% for a long time, while the plates may eventually disintegrate, they will never break.
It is this mechanism that prevents the seahorse from becoming a victim of a wily crab. That's because unless the predator figures out how to compress it's body more than 50% and hold that pressure for a long time, the seahorse is indestructible and by holding on to a coral with its flexible tail, can usually escape unscathed.
As for the scientists? They are hoping to mimic this ingenious natural armor and build a device that will survive through any kind of hostile environment so that it can be used for things ranging from remote bomb detonation to a robotic arm to rescue sailors who have fallen overboard to even, loading equipment in outer space and if they can make it small enough, a medical tool for inside the human body!
Resources: dailymail.co.uk,gizmodo.com, news.yahoo.com, news.discovery.com