New York: The little seahorse is inspiring researchers to build robots that have capabilities sometimes at odds with one another - flexible, but also tough and strong.
"Human engineers tend to build things that are stiff so they can be controlled easily," said study co-author Ross Hatton, an assistant professor in the college of engineering at Oregon State University.
"But nature makes things just strong enough not to break, and then flexible enough to do a wide range of tasks. That's why animals will inspire the next generations of robotics."
Although technically a fish, the seahorse has a tail that through millions of years of evolution has largely lost the ability to assist the animal in swimming.
Instead, it provides a strong, energy-efficient grasping mechanism to cling to things such as seaweed or coral reefs, waiting for food to float by that it can suck into its mouth.
At the same time, the square structure of its tail provides adequate flexibility, can bend and twist, and naturally returns to its former shape better than animals with cylindrical tails.
Researchers theorised that the square structure of its tail, so rare in nature, must serve a purpose.
"We found that this square architecture provides adequate dexterity and a tough resistance to predators, but also that it tends to snap naturally back into place once it's been twisted and deformed," Hatton said.
"This could be very useful for robotics applications that need to be strong, but also energy efficient and able to bend and twist in tight spaces."
Such applications might include laparoscopic surgery, in which a robotic device could offer enhanced control and flexibility as it enters a body, moves around organs and bones, and then has the strength to accomplish a surgical task.
It could find uses in industrial system, search and rescue robots, or anything that needs to be both resilient and flexible.
The study was published in the journal Science.