New analysis into some of the world’s smallest animals could explain how the tiny creatures generate massive amounts of power, according to a new study in the journal Science.
This research first began in 2004, when a group of researchers at the University of California, Berkeley set to understand mantis shrimp. The small crustaceans — which live in the warmer parts of the Indian and Pacific oceans — have the ability to punch so fast that they can puncture crab and snail shells. Their arms move over 50 miles per hour during such impacts, and that sudden burst is strong enough to create shockwaves underwater.
While scientists long believed those powerful punches were the result of particularly strong muscles, a 2004 study revealed the shrimp get their strength from a special part of their exoskeleton that they can load up and use as a spring.
In the recent study, the same team — now at various U.S. universities — followed up on those findings. In the years since their analysis on mantis shrimp, they noticed that many other small species could hit incredible acceleration rates.
For example, the South American trap jaw ant can snap its jaws together at speeds reaching 140 miles per hour in the blink of an eye, certain frogs can accelerate to 10 miles per hour in a fraction of a second, and some carnivorous plants are able to rapidly grab prey.
To see if those different species all had something in common, the team analyzed various small plants and animals. They found that many different organisms have spring-like mechanisms that operate in the same way as the mantis shrimp’s arms. That then explains how so many plants and animals move at speeds that theoretically should not be possible.
The team tested their theory in more than 100 different species and found that organisms evolved special springs rather than muscles to generate incredible amounts of acceleration. That may sound odd but, as muscles can only generate force up to a certain speed, it makes perfect sense. In addition, springs take up less space and require less energy than muscles.
This research is important because, not only does it shed light on animal biology, but it could one day help scientists create better robots. Modern robotics has already adapted many elements of the natural world, and being able to find a more efficient spring could be invaluable down the line.