Research Article

Why the seahorse tail is square

Science  03 Jul 2015:
Vol. 349, Issue 6243,
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa6683

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The curious tale of the square tail

Appendages in animals are typically round, but the seahorse tail has a square cross section. Porter et al. hypothesize that this shape provides better functionality and strength than a round cross section (see the Perspective by Ashley-Ross). Three-dimensional printed models show that square cross section shapes behave more advantageously when subjected to compressive forces. By allowing greater deformation without damage and accommodating twisting deformations, square appendages passively return to their original configurations. The added flexibility of the square cross section enhances the tail's ability to grasp objects.

Science, this issue 10.1126/science.aaa6683; see also p. 30

Structured Abstract

INTRODUCTION

Although the predominant shapes of most animal tails are cylindrical, seahorse tails are square prisms. The skeleton of their tails consists of a bony armor arranged into several ringlike segments composed of four L-shaped plates that surround a central vertebra. These plates articulate with specialized joints that facilitate bending and twisting, as well as resist vertebral fracture from crushing. Muscles attached to the vertebral column transmit forces to the bony plates to provide motion for grasping and holding on to objects such as sea grasses, mangrove roots, and coral reefs, which allows them to hide and rely on camouflage when evading predators and capturing prey.

RATIONALE

We hypothesize that the square cross-sectional architecture of a seahorse tail improves mechanical performance in prehension (grasping ability) and armored functions (crushing resistance), relative to a cylindrical one. To test this hypothesis, we evaluated the mechanics of two three-dimensional (3D)–printed prototypes composed of articulating plates and vertebrae that mimic the natural (square prism) and a hypothetical (cylindrical) tail structure. We compared the bending, twisting, and compressive behavior of the biomimetic prototypes to show that the square profile is better than the circular one for two integrated functions: grasping ability and crushing resistance.

RESULTS

Seahorse tails (and the prototypes) have three primary joints that enable motion: ball-and-socket, peg-and-socket, and gliding. The ball-and-socket joints connect adjacent vertebrae and constrain bending in both the square and cylindrical prototypes to the same degree, exhibiting a behavior similar to that of a natural seahorse tail. The peg-and-socket joints connect the plates of adjacent segments and substantially restrict twisting in the prototype with a square profile, as compared with the circular one. The square geometry limits excessive torsion and preserves articulatory organization, which could provide seahorses a natural safety factor against torsion-induced damage and assist in tail relaxation. Further, the square architecture is flat (increasing surface contact) and undergoes an exterior shape change when twisted, which could allow seahorses to grasp objects with more control. Gliding joints are present at the plate overlaps along all four sides of both prototypes. Under transverse compression and impact (with a rubber mallet), the plates of the square prototype slide past one another with one degree of translation freedom (analogous to the crushing behavior of a natural seahorse tail), exhibiting a response that is stiffer, stronger, and more resilient than its cylindrical counterpart, whose plates translate and rotate on impact.

CONCLUSION

Exploration of these biologically inspired designs provides insight into the mechanical benefits for seahorses to have evolved prehensile tails composed of armored plates organized into square prisms. Beyond their intended practical applications, engineering designs are convenient means to answer elusive biological questions when live animal data are unavailable (for example, seahorses do not have cylindrical tails). Understanding the role of mechanics in these prototypes may help engineers to develop future seahorse-inspired technologies that mimic the prehensile and armored functions of the natural appendage for a variety of applications in robotics, defense systems, or biomedicine.

Engineering designs answer biological questions.

3D-printed models that mimic a seahorse tail were designed not only for potential engineering applications but also to answer the biological question, why might tails organized into square prisms be better than cylinders? A mechanical comparison of the prototypes shows that articulated square prisms perform better than do cylinders for grasping and resistance to crushing.

Abstract

Whereas the predominant shapes of most animal tails are cylindrical, seahorse tails are square prisms. Seahorses use their tails as flexible grasping appendages, in spite of a rigid bony armor that fully encases their bodies. We explore the mechanics of two three-dimensional–printed models that mimic either the natural (square prism) or hypothetical (cylindrical) architecture of a seahorse tail to uncover whether or not the square geometry provides any functional advantages. Our results show that the square prism is more resilient when crushed and provides a mechanism for preserving articulatory organization upon extensive bending and twisting, as compared with its cylindrical counterpart. Thus, the square architecture is better than the circular one in the context of two integrated functions: grasping ability and crushing resistance.

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