3D Printed Seahorse Tail Model Inspires Engineers

Researchers test 3D-printed skeletal models of the seahorse tail, and the results may help design stronger and more flexible robots.

Seahorses, small marine fishes in the genus Hippocampus, have tails that are square in cross-section. But why are seahorse tails square?

A team of researchers set out to find the answer. They found that the square shape of a seahorse’s tail is better able to grasp and grip objects than a circular cross-section tail.

Co-author Ross Hatton, assistant professor in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, explained in a statement:

“Human engineers tend to build things that are stiff so they can be controlled easily. But nature makes things just strong enough not to break, and then flexible enough to do a wide range of tasks. That’s why we can learn a lot from animals that will inspire the next generations of robotics.”

The study expands on work Michael Porter started at UC San Diego in collaboration with Dominique Adriaens, professor of evolutionary biology at Ghent University and UC San Diego materials science and engineering professors Joanna McKittrick and Marc Meyers.

Said McKittrick, who was Porter’s co-advisor and is a co-author on the paper.

“Michael decided to use engineering and technology to explain biological features.”

You can simplify nature and study it in the lab, added Meyers, also a co-author and Porter co-advisor:

“Then you can build new bioinspired structures and devices.”

The research team found that square plates move with in only one degree of freedom when crushed- they slide. Circular plates, in comparison, have two degrees of freedom, they slide and they rotate.

As a result, the square plates absorb much more energy before permanent failure begins.

Researchers used 3D-printing to construct a simplified model of the seahorse’s tail, which they then bent, twisted, compressed and crushed. They also 3D-printed and ran similar experiments on a tail model made of overlapping round segments that they designed and that is not found in nature.


Michael M. Porter, Dominique Adriaens, Ross L. Hatton, Marc A. Meyers, Joanna McKittrick
Why the seahorse tail is square
Science 3 July 2015: Vol. 349 no. 6243 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa6683

Photo: Michael Bentley/flickr