Better Body Armor? Piranha-Proof Fish Have Answers
CREDIT: Jacobs School of Engineering, UC San Diego.
The armor that a massive Amazonian fish evolved against piranhas could lead to better body armor for soldiers, researchers say.
The arapaima (Arapaima gigas) is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world, weighing up to 440 pounds (200 kilograms). It lives in the Amazon, and as the waters of the rivers there recede during the dry season, it gets trapped alongside piranhas, and the latter eventually attack every bird, fish, mammal and reptile they can, save alligators.
"I've gone to the Amazon many times — I first spent time there as part of a Peace Corps project when I was 20," said researcher Marc Meyers, a material scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "I remember being struck by how the arapaima could live in these piranha-infested lakes."
It turns out the arapaima can thrive in this crowded environment. As such, Meyers and his colleagues wanted to learn how it could coexist with such a ravenous predator, especially one with a guillotine-like bite highly effective at slicing through muscle.
The researchers devised a mechanical version of a fight between a piranha and an arapaima. Piranha teeth were attached to what was essentially an industrial-strength hole punch and pressed down onto arapaima scales up to 4 inches (10 centimeters) long, which were embedded on a soft rubber surface that mimicked the muscle of the fish. They found the cutting and puncturing ability of the piranha teeth could not penetrate the arapaima scales.
The arapaima experiments suggest a number of lessons when it comes to designing advanced materials. For instance, the corrugated, ridged surfaces of the scales, which people in the Amazon sometimes use as nail files, help the scales bend without cracking, a discovery that could be of use when working with brittle materials such as ceramics. In addition, the scales mix soft and hard materials — soft collagen fibers stacked in alternating directions like a pile of plywood lend toughness to the scale, and a very hefty mineralized layer on top lends hardness.
Such flexible, tough, hard materials could be useful in body armor, Meyers said. "I believe that this can be used for flexible armor," he told InnovationNewsDaily. "I am in the process of contacting funding agencies for support."
The researchers will continue exploring the natural world for inspiration, "asking, 'how does nature put these things together?'" Meyers said. Another project will involve the alligator gar, a huge fish from the American South whose scales were used by Native Americans as arrow tips. The researchers are also studying abalone shells and leatherback turtle skin for inspiration.
"The materials that nature has at its disposal are not very strong, but nature combines them in a very ingenious way to produce strong components and strong designs," Meyers said.
The researchers detailed their findings online Jan. 9 in the journal Advanced Engineering Materials. The work was also detailed in the October 2011 issue of the Journal of the Mechanical Behavior of Biomedical Materials.