Sharks play an essential rol in the health of our oceans

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Sharks are smooth swimmers – the secret of shark skin

The skin of this puffadder shy shark is covered with denticles / Picture by Peter Verhoog, Dutch Shark Society

Sharks have a torpedo shape, covered in rough sandpapery skin. This gives sharks their highly efficient swimming abilities, and scientists finally understand why.

A shark’s skin is covered in millions of microscopic denticles, rigid tooth-like scales that jut out from the soft skin beneath. By disrupting the flow of water over the fish’s skin, it is thought, the denticles reduce drag, making for a more efficient swimmer. But to really empirically understand how the denticles do their job, you need to see how different sorts of skin coverings affect the fluid dynamics as water washes over the skin of swimming fish. You can’t take a real shark and give it new skin, so Harvard University researchers Li Wen, James C. Weaver, and George V. Lauder created artificial shark skin instead. They manufactured it using a 3D printer.

Artificial shark skin with rigid denticles attached to a flexible membrane. Photo credit: James Weaver.

They carefully scanned a piece of shark skin, and built a model of the structure before reproducing it thousands of times in a computer model of the skin. ‘After considering a number of approaches, the team decided that the only way to embed hard denticles in a flexible substrate was the 3D printer’, recalls Lauder, but this proved to be easier said than done. However, after a year of testing different materials, printing protocols and enlarging the denticles and their spacing, Weaver finally produced a convincing sample with the denticles secured in a flexible support.

Findings from this line of research could also open up new frontiers for soft-bodied hydrodynamic robotics, and lead to innovation in the design of more efficient wetsuits and other swimming apparel.

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