Seahorses have incredible flexibility in their tails, making this 3D-printing experiment worthwhile.

Everything in the world is 3D-printed today, from organs to food, and now animals. In a new study, robot researchers made 3D-printed seahorses in order to test out their tail flexibilities. The study was carried out by Clemson University study head, Dr. Michael Porter, as well as Ghent University’s Dominique Adriaens, Oregon State University’s Ross L. Hatton, and University of California-San Diego’s Drs. Marc A. Meyers and Joanna McKittrick.

Seahorses are known for having particularly flexible tails that allow them to float gracefully in the water, while holding up even when their tails are being crushed. The seahorses square tail is superior to a round one, allowing it to bend and flex and return to its normal position when it’s not being weighed down or impacted by an external force. Robot researchers first made 3D-printed seahorse models, then tortured those models (keep in mind that these were 3D-print models, not the actual seahorses themselves).

After making the 3D-print seahorses, researchers then subjected them to various bending tests, studying how their tails bend, flex, and twist in various situations. They are even able to cling to objects and wrap their tails around them, which gives seahorses a firm grip on their surroundings. The 3D-print seahorses absorbed great amounts of impact, with researchers discovering that the tail is protected by armor plates that keep it in place.

Using these observations from the printed seahorses, researchers learned some information that the team says can be used to better equip robots to better survive the elements. “Human engineers tend to build things that are stiff so they can be controlled easily, but nature makes things just strong enough not to break, and then flexible enough to do a wide range of tasks. That’s why we can learn a lot from animals that will inspire the next generations of robotics,” said study co-author Ross Hatton.

Robotics is growing at a fast pace, with researchers yearning to create more soft-bodied robots whose motions mimic animals and creatures in real time. Robots are currently vulnerable with the way their body parts are designed, but learning about the seahorse’s plated vertebrae could make robots more flexible and easier to adapt in all sorts of marine and land encounters. “The seahorse tail gives us an idea of how we might add armor on to these,” said Hatton.

Aside from their flexible tails, seahorses operate differently from humans: while human females carry a zygote until birth, male seahorses carry fry, seahorse “zygotes,” in their pouch from 9-45 days, with female seahorses release up to 1,500 eggs into the male pouch that will eventually come to term. The male seahorses experience contractions during the birth process but can return to breeding only hours after expelling their young. They are not nurturing towards their young, either.

You can find the latest on this study in the Science journal.

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