Magazine article Oceanus

Turtle Skulls Prove to Be Shock-Resistant: Could Sea Turtles Help Us Design Better Helmets and Body Armor for Soldiers?

Magazine article Oceanus

Turtle Skulls Prove to Be Shock-Resistant: Could Sea Turtles Help Us Design Better Helmets and Body Armor for Soldiers?

Article excerpt

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Scientists and engineers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the U.S. Navy have discovered that sea turtles' skulls and shells protect them not only from predators but also from extraordinarily powerful underwater shock waves. The research, originally intended to help the Navy avoid harming turtles, could also point the way to designing improved body armor and helmets for soldiers on land.

To test the safety of ship designs, the U.S. Navy conducts "ship shock" trials, setting off explosions near test vessels. Navy personnel must monitor the seas to ensure that marine mammals and sea turtles are not harmed. But at what distances should various species be considered safe from the effects of pressure and sounds waves from the explosions?

"The only way to know this is to set up experiments using animal cadavers and measure the pressure [from explosions] and see what happens to the animals' tissues and bodies," said Frank Stone, director of the Marine Mammal Research and Development Program in the U.S. Navy's Environmental Readiness Division.

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In the experiments, WHOI biologist Darlene Ketten, a team of blast trauma researchers, and Navy engineers meticulously attached pressure sensors to fresh carcasses of dolphins and sea turtles that had died by stranding themselves on beaches. In this way, the unfortunate stranding deaths of animals serve to help protect living ones. At the Naval Surface Warfare Center and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland, test carcasses are subjected to blast pressures equivalent to different distances from an underwater explosion.

"The object is to determine what kinds of telltale blast traumas occur in different species at various distances and to find the point of no damage for each," said Ketten, who studies blast trauma characteristics and the anatomy and function of hearing organs.

The experiments involve CT scanning the carcasses before and after the blasts, which are recorded by sensors. Then the researchers dissect the specimens to examine, in some cases microscopically, every major organ to detect any trauma related to the blast waves. By comparing the pressure wave readings recorded by the sensors with the CT scans and injury summaries, the researchers can determine the relationships between the pressures the animals received and the damage they sustained. …

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