Seahorse Tails Spawn Invention

A favorite sea creature inspires innovative gripping devices.

When it comes to innovation, sometimes nature knows best. Engineers at the University of California-San Diego are creating new robotic devices inspired by a seahorse, according to a study published in Acta Biomaterialia. "We thought the seahorse tail was a really interesting mechanism," says lead researcher Michael Porter. "We've never seen anything like it before." By compressing seahorse tailbones, his team discovered that the tail's unique structure acts as protective armor. Beneath the skin, four overlapping bony plates form a square around a central vertebra. These plates slide past each other when squeezed, absorbing some of the pressure. "If a seahorse was crushed by a predator," says Porter, "it seems the vertebral column and nerves would be protected." This structure also makes the tail more flexible, allowing the fish to stay put in strong currents by gripping seaweed. Porter and his team are now creating a 3-D printed robotic gripping device modeled on the seahorse tails, which could eventually aid bomb removal or assist surgeries. Electro-active polymers—materials that change size and shape when stimulated by an electric field—are designed to act as artificial muscles to move the robot tail. Says Porter, "We want to mimic almost identically what the seahorse tail does."