The sea urchin’s intricate mouth and teeth are the model for a claw-like device developed by a team of engineers and marine biologists at the University of California, San Diego to sample sediments on other planets, such as Mars. The researchers detail their work in a recent issue of the Journal of Visualized Experiments.
The urchin’s mouthpiece was first described in detail by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, earning it the nickname “Aristotle’s lantern.” It is comprised of an intricate framework of muscles and five curved teeth with triangle-shaped tips that can scrape, cut, chew and bore holes into the toughest rocks—a colony of sea urchins can destroy an entire kelp forest by churning through rock and uprooting seaweed. The teeth are arranged in a dome-like formation that opens outwards and closes inwards in a smooth motion, similar to a claw in an arcade prize-grabbing machine.
The urchin’s extraordinary ability to rip through rock could translate to a good sediment sampler for space vehicles like the Mars rovers, which currently use shovels to collect ground samples, said Michael Frank, a Ph.D. candidate at the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego and the paper’s first author. “Our goal was a bioinspired device that’s more precise and efficient at grabbing ground samples from different areas, and won’t disturb the surrounding area like a shovel would,” he said.
Frank is part of a research group that uses engineering to explain biological structures and then designs bio-inspired devices based on what they find. Led by mechanical engineering professor Joanna McKittrick, the group has applied this approach to exploring natural structures in seahorses, boxfish, porcupines, woodpeckers, porcupine fish and many other animals.