Bio-Inspiration, Paddlefish, and Soldiers – What’s the Connection?

Published Oct. 12, 2012
Dr. Jan Hoover (r) and MSU engineering student Liz Rayfield examine a paddlefish specimen at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Vicksburg, Miss.

Dr. Jan Hoover (r) and MSU engineering student Liz Rayfield examine a paddlefish specimen at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Vicksburg, Miss.

A juvenile paddlefish in the swim tunnel tank at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Vicksburg, Miss.

A juvenile paddlefish in the swim tunnel tank at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, Vicksburg, Miss.

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VICKSBURG, Miss.--The scientific method known as “bio-inspiration” uses nature to inform technology, adapting attributes of plants and animals into technology that could be used by humans.

Dr. Jan Hoover, a research fisheries biologist at the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) in Vicksburg, Miss., is part of an interdisciplinary team working on a five-year “bio-inspired” study of the paddlefish. Scientists representing Mississippi State University (MSU), along with ERDC’s Environmental Laboratory (EL) Geotechnical and Structures Laboratory (GSL), and Information Technology Laboratory, are participating.

The group is studying the overall form of the paddlefish rostrum, the microscopic anatomy of cells and tissues, and the unique skeleton made up of star-shaped bones. How these interact with each other, and with the fish’s physical properties and behavior, determines the functions of the rostrum. The goal is to evaluate paddlefish rostrum strength, hydrodynamics and electrical detection properties for possible uses in body and vehicle armor, ship design and sensor arrays, among other uses. As in many of the distantly related shark species, the paddlefish's rostrum contains electro receptors that can detect weak electrical fields, making the paddlefish rostrum a super-sensitive antenna capable of locating tiny zooplankton on which the large fish feeds.

Since zooplankton are usually too small to be seen with the naked eye, Hoover and his colleagues believe this ability and other physical properties of the paddlefish could be adapted for military use. Some potential adaptations are utilizing the electro- sensory system to detect metal objects or electrical signals from explosives; using the skeletal system as a blueprint for armor due to its resilience and flexibility; or using the shape to guide the design of hydrofoils.

“By bringing together the diversity of research disciplines demonstrated among these team members, we hope to come up with a greater understanding of how the paddlefish interacts with its environment,” said Hoover. “We hope that this knowledge may lead to advances that will not only assist Soldiers but help save Soldiers’ lives.”

Multiple studies at ERDC are now under way by Hoover and Liz Rayfield, an MSU engineering student, on swimming performance and hydrodynamic characteristics; by Paul Allison, GSL, and Jeremiah Deang, another MSU engineering student, on strength and skeletal characteristics; by Keri Donohue and Dave Johnson, EL, on tissue and chemical structure; and by Guillermo Riveros, Information Technology Laboratory, who is providing modeling support. Dr. Ed Perkins, EL, is the study’s project manager.

Paddlefish are uniquely qualified as biological models because their rostrum is large, lightweight, strong, resilient and unusually sensitive. There is a single viable species in the world and it occurs in the Mississippi Basin and some smaller Gulf slope rivers. In addition to locating zooplankton, the rostrum helps the fish feed by acting as a stabilizer. As the fish moves through the water with its mouth open, the rostrum creates lift, much like the wing of an airplane. This allows the fish to keep its head in a steady position and helps it keep from diving to the bottom.

The American paddlefish is one of the largest freshwater fish in North America, commonly reaching five feet or more in length and weighing more than 60 pounds.

There is a sense of urgency to the study because the species’ population is in decline. Paddlefish were once abundant in most central U.S. river systems, but during the last century, it and the sturgeon have been commercially exploited for their eggs, or roe (caviar). This overharvesting has contributed to the decline in the species numbers, as paddlefish and sturgeon are two of the most important fish for freshwater caviar. They are frequently targeted by poachers for those same valuable eggs.

Other factors that have contributed to the species’ decline are sedimentation and river modification. In addition, paddlefish avoid fish ladders because of the metal rebar used in construction, which disrupts their electro-magnetic sense organs. Measures to protect the species have been enacted in multiple locations.

Researchers hope to not only protect the species but to learn valuable lessons from this unique fish that can be applied toward keeping our Soldiers safe on the battlefield.

The bio-inspiration studies on the paddlefish is a prime example of the ERDC mission to provide innovative solutions for a safer, better world.


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