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A Few Peeks at Some Beaks May Inspire New Engineering Techniques

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UCSB scientists figure out how a squishy squid can have a hard beak. Their findings could revolutionize materials engineering.

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So you’re sitting down to a plate of calamari and the question strikes: how can a squid, with its jellylike body, manage to use its hard beak without tearing itself to shreds?

OK, maybe that wasn’t what you were wondering. But the question has been on the minds of several UCSB researchers.

Thanks to the interdisciplinary work of engineers and scientists at the university, and dozens of dead squid that washed up on campus beaches recently, we now have the answer, and a material that engineers want to copy. Their results are published in the current issue of the journal Science.

The beak of the Humboldt squid (Dosidicus gigas) is one of the hardest organic materials known. Yet it’s attached to a body made of soft and pliable flesh.

“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," said the study’s co-author, Frank Zok, professor and associate chairman of UCSB’s Materials Department.

“The blade would cut through the Jell-o at least as much as the targeted object.”

And yet the squid has no problem using its hard, sharp beak.

“Squids can be aggressive, whimsical, suddenly mean, and they are always hungry,” said Herb Waite, co-author and professor of biology at UCSB. “You wouldn’t want to be diving next to one. A dozen of them could eat you, or really hurt you a lot.”

Waite’s fascination with squid beaks led him to get postdoctoral researcher and first author Ali Miserez to in on the study. Miserez is affiliated with UCSB’s Materials Department, the Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, and the Marine Science Institute.

Their research was further aided by the Humboldt squid themselves, which have been seen farther and farther north of their traditional haunts in Mexican waters. Dead squid have recently washed up at campus beaches, allowing the researchers to study their beaks.

What they found was that the beak, from its tip to its base, was progressively more pliant. The end is hard, sharp tissue while the base is soft. By changing the composition of the beak gradually, Zok said, nature allows the squid to pierce its prey without shredding itself.

“It’s truly a fascinating design,” he said.

The UCSB findings could play an important role in the way things are engineered, from adhesives to implants, where the material on one part of the structure needs to behave differently from material on another end.

“If we could reproduce the property gradients that we find in squid beak, It would open new possibilities for joining materials,” Zok said.

“I’d always been skeptical of whether there is any real advantage to ‘functionally graded’ materials, but the squid beak turned me into a believer,” Zok said.

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