A new class of flexible yet tough materials may be in our future, thanks to a study of squid beaks. Scientists at University of Santa Barbara, reported National Geographic News1 and ScienceDaily,2 were curious how the squid anchors its tough, hard beak in soft tissue. Try anchoring a knife in Jell-o and you get a picture of the problem.

The squid’s secret is a progressive stiffening from the soft tissue where it is anchored to the beak itself. This allows the force from the beak to be gradually attenuated down the structure. “The tip is extremely stiff, yet the base is 100 times more compliant, allowing it to blend with surrounding tissue,” the article states.

If engineers could imitate this graduated stiffness technique, “This could really revolutionize the way engineers think about attaching materials together.” Ali Miserez, the lead author, noted another benefit. “Biological materials are ‘made’ by animals at the temperature of oceans and using naturally occurring chemicals,” he said. “If we can fully understand the chemistry and copy it, then that could lead to a generation of synthetic materials that are less harsh to the environment and made at a lower energetic cost.”

Frank Zok, a materials scientist at UCSB and co-author of the study, was fascinated with the squid solution to an engineering problem.

You can imagine the problems you’d encounter if you attached a knife blade to a block of Jell-o and tried to use that blade for cutting. The blade would cut through the Jell-o at least as much as the targeted object. In the case of the squid beak, nature takes care of the problem by changing the beak composition progressively, rather than abruptly, so that its tip can pierce prey without harming the squid in the process. It’s a truly fascinating design!2….

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