Looking like an elaborate pin cushion resting on the ocean floor, the pink sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus fragilis) lives at depths between 300 and 1,600 feet. As it uses its tiny tube feet to traverse the ocean floor, it searches for food. Once food is found, the sea urchin sups it up, scooping with its five-tooth mouth, which is situated on the bottom of its body. This mouthpiece was first described by the Greek philosopher Aristotle. It’s nicknamed “Aristotle’s lantern.”
The sea urchin’s maw served as inspiration for a University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego) research team. Publishing in the Journal of Visualized Experiments, the team reported the fabrication process of their new claw-like device, which they hope may provide a ground sampling alternative to current devices used for sampling extraterrestrial terrain.
“The sea urchin mouthpiece … is a compelling source of bioinspiration with an intricate network of musculature and calcareous teeth that can scrape, cut, chew food and bore holes into rocky substrates,” the researchers wrote.
For their study, the researchers used sea urchins collected by the university’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Prof. Joanna McKittrick, who teaches mechanical engineering, led the team. McKittrick, according to UC San Diego, has looked for bioinspiration in seahorses, boxfish, porcupines, woodpeckers, and porcupine fish, among other animals.
After extracting the sea urchins’ mouthpieces, the researchers employed micro-computed tomography to analyze it, then used scanning electron microscopy to examine the microstructures of the individual teeth.
The team discovered that a T-shaped structures known as keels, which run down the center of the sea urchins’ teeth, helped bolster performance. “Simulations show that teeth with keels experienced 16 percent less stress than teeth without keels when subjected to a 10-lb-load,” according to UC San Diego. Adding the keel only increased the tooth’s mass by four percent.
The researchers then 3D printed models of their device for testing. They attached it to a remote-controlled small rover and used it on sand meant to simulate Martian soil.
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