Mantis shrimp can fight without getting injured. Researchers are mimicking the tail segment structures that make this possible. Photo: University of California, Berkeley image/Roy Caldwell.
Mantis shrimp can fight without getting injured. Researchers are mimicking the tail segment structures that make this possible. Photo: University of California, Berkeley image/Roy Caldwell.

The tail of the mantis shrimp, one of the ocean's most ornery creatures, can deliver and receive powerful blows without suffering damage. But the strategy they employ for doing this could also solve a big manufacturing problem: creating lighter materials that absorb a lot of energy from a sharp impact within a limited amount of space.

What if there were a material that could prevent car ceilings from caving in on passengers during an accident, or fragile objects from breaking when transported over long distances?

The mantis shrimp's secret is its tail appendage, called a telson. Engineers have now discovered what allows the telson to absorb the blows of its feisty self, with the goal of applying these lessons to protective gear. The work, reported in a paper in Advanced Functional Materials, was performed by a team that included researchers from David Kisailus' lab at the University of California (UC), Riverside and from Pablo Zavattieri's lab at Purdue University.

A telson can be shaped either as a territorial shield for ‘smasher’ species, or as a burrowing shovel that also stabs prey for ‘spearer’ species. The researchers found out how the telson of the smasher, compared to that of the spearer, is better at protecting the mantis.

Their findings reveal that the smasher telson has curved ridges called carinae on the outside and a helicoidal structure shaped like a spiral staircase on the inside. The UC Riverside researchers ran tests on both the mantis shrimp itself and on 3D-printed replicas of the telson, showing that the carinae act to both stiffen a smasher's shield and allow it to flex inward. Together with its helicoidal structure, which prevents cracks from growing upon impact, this allows the shield to absorb significant amounts of energy during a strike without falling apart.

Purdue researchers validated the role of carinae through computational models, simulating the attacks of one mantis against the telson of another. They even ‘invented’ species with features between the smasher and the spearer to evaluate which telson offered the best protection for the animal.

"We started with the telson of the spearer and gradually added features that start looking like the smasher," said Zavattieri, a professor of civil engineering at Purdue. "The smasher shield is clearly more ideal for preventing impact from reaching the rest of the body, which makes sense because the mantis has organs all the way to its tail."

Zavattieri and Kisailus, a professor of chemical and environmental engineering at UC Riverside, had previously observed the same helicoidal structure in the dactyl club appendage of the smasher mantis, which can strike a telson with the speed of a .22 caliber bullet.

"We realized that if these organisms were striking each other with such incredible forces, the telson must be architected in such a way to act like the perfect shield," Kisailus said. "Not only did the telson of the smasher contain the helicoid microstructure, but there were significantly more energy-absorbing helicoidal layers in the smashing type than the spearing type."

Zavattieri's group has already begun incorporating the crack propagation mechanisms of arthropod exoskeletons into 3D-printed cement paste, a key ingredient of the concrete and mortar used to build various elements of infrastructure. His lab now also plans to try out advantageous structures from the mantis shrimp.

But there are still more clues to uncover about all that carinae and helicoidal structures have to offer, the researchers say, as well as how to manufacture them into new materials. "The dactyl club is bulky, while the telson is very lightweight. How do we make protective layers, thin films and coatings, for example, that are both stronger and lighter?" Zavattieri said.

This story is adapted from material from Purdue University, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.