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Science Nation: Antlers, Shells, and Beaks

5 minutes

(Describer) Streams of light collide to create a globe filled with water. Title: Science Nation. A ram has horns which curl back, then forward.

(male narrator) When researchers started to study what "ram tough" means, they were thinking this.

(Describer) He buts another ram.

Horns, antlers, seashells, toucan beaks are amazing wonders of nature being scrutinized by these scientists and their team at the University of California, San Diego. What are these? What is that? I don't know.

(narrator) Their research takes them to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography nearby, where some of the natural wonders reside, including the tough abalone shell that started it all.

(Describer) Marc Myers:

(male) About ten years ago, I was involved in a project for the army developing armor. The idea came that the abalone is made out of chalk or chalk-like material-- calcium carbonate. Although chalk is very weak, this is thousands of times stronger than chalk. You can try to break it, you cannot succeed.

(narrator) For simple materials like chalk to be structured into such indestructible objects left scientists Marc Myers and Joanna McKittrick wanting more knowledge about how shells and other objects in nature are designed. For example, how can ram horns and elk antlers withstand such impact without breaking apart? And who knew horns were so different from antlers?

(Describer) McKittrick:

First we cut it and look at the cross section, and that's how we identify the microstructure of the material.

(narrator) Using this state-of-the-art scanning electron microscope, purchased with support from the National Science Foundation, scientists are seeing details they've never seen before. Antlers and other materials can be magnified as much as 50,000 times.

(Describer) A network of round holes is shown.

(McKittrick) What's surprising about the elk antler is it's really a bone.

(narrator) They're learning that antlers have a porous, bony center surrounded by a sturdier, denser outer shell that evolved over millions of years to do one thing: to fight.

(McKittrick) It doesn't serve any structural purpose like our bones serve a structural purpose. They create bone marrow, they are calcium reserves. But antlers are just used for fighting. They have to be very robust.

(narrator) The same could be said about horns. They are different than antlers. Horns are hollow, made essentially of keratin, same as our fingernails and hair. In the lab, horn samples are tested for endurance and strength.

(Describer) A tiny sample is pulled apart.

(male) This is a ram horn sample.

(narrator) Undergraduate Brandon Reynante built a version of a crash test simulator.

(Reynante) The machine is designed to simulate rams butting heads during fighting. Once the machine is set up, we just press the button to drop the impactor.

(Describer) A weight falls.

(narrator) How can these hollow horns withstand such impacts? McKittrick says it has something to do with microscopic air pockets, or tubules, running lengthwise that help horns withstand intense forces.

(Describer) McKittrick:

You can't see the tubules, they're nanoscopic. Yeah, they're through here.

(Describer) She points at a horn cross-section. The abalone shell and teeth of different fish are shown.

(narrator) It's endless what they find to study.

(Myers) These are the teeth of a Komodo dragon. Here you can see the tiny serrations along this tooth.

(Describer) A toucan perches on a branch.

[screeching]

Then there's the toucan. Its beak is 1/3 the size of its body. You'd think it would be too beak-heavy to fly. But the beak weighs almost nothing.

(Describer) Myers:

(Myers) It has a structure that is fantastic. The inside is almost hollow, but it has foam. The outside has a shell. It is extremely strong.

(narrator) So why bother knowing all this? Just think gecko. Examining and magnifying the gecko's uncanny ability to stick to surfaces led to the creation of new surgical tape. Studying horns and antlers could lead to any number of new energy-resistant man-made materials like bumpers and helmets. Knowing the structure of rugged shells of the armadillo and tortoise could help develop better protective gear for the military. Keying in on the sharp details of sharks' or Komodo dragons' serrated teeth could lead to better cutting tools. And that lightweight toucan beak could lead to man-made materials that one day lighten the load for boats, planes, and automobiles.

(Meyer) We need to decrease the weight of our transportation systems to enhance efficiency.

(Describer) A globe turns by the title.

For Science Nation, I'm Bruce Burkhardt.

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As a boy growing up in Brazil 40 years ago, Marc Meyers marveled at the lightweight toughness of toucan beaks that he occasionally found on the forest floor. Now, with support from the National Science Foundation, the materials scientist and mechanical and aerospace engineer at UC San Diego, is conducting the first ever detailed engineering analysis of toucan beaks. He says makers of airplanes and automobiles may benefit from his findings. In fact, panels that mimic toucan beaks may offer better protection to motorists involved in crashes.

Media Details

Runtime: 5 minutes

Science Nation
Episode 1
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