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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Hard as Sea Snails

Air Date: Week of February 19, 2010

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A soldier is deterred by the scaly-foot snail’s hard shell. (Image: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation)

Researchers believe that better body and vehicle armor could be modeled on the shell of the scaly-foot snail, a tiny gastropod that lives on the floor of the Indian Ocean. Emily Guerin reports.


YOUNG: Coming up – an author finds deep insight by looking at the ways animals hide. But first this Note on Emerging Science from Emily Guerin.


GUERIN: The scaly-foot snail was only discovered in 2001, but the deep-sea dweller has already made a big splash in the scientific world. Its super-hard shell has MIT researchers wondering if armor could be modeled on the tiny creature.

The snail lives 6,000 feet under the sea next to “black smokers,” sea-floor chimneys that spew superheated water from under the earth’s crust. The little gastropod must tolerate pressure of up to 4,400 pounds per inch and acidic water that can range from near freezing to a piping hot 750 degrees Fahrenheit. To top it off, the scaly-foot must ward off attacks from crabs and other snails.

A soldier is deterred by the scaly-foot snail’s hard shell. (Image: Zina Deretsky, National Science Foundation)

But the scaly-foot has adapted to its unwelcoming home. It sports a tri-layered shell that can take a predator days to break through. The thin outer layer, made of iron sulfide, is the strongest. When attacked, it develops tiny cracks, dissipating the energy and preventing larger cracks from forming.

The middle layer is spongy and shock resistant like a bike helmet, and may also absorb heat. The inner layer is made of calcium carbonate, a common shell material that would erode in the acidic water if not protected by the other layers.

Scientists believe the tiny scaly-foot snail could teach them a lot about structural engineering, and may one day inspire a new generation of body and vehicle armor. It’s a lot of pressure to put on such a small creature, but pressure is one thing this snail is used to. That’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science. I’m Emily Guerin.




For more on the steely snail, click here.


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