“When started above the surface, the animals dive into the sand within a half second. Once below the surface, they no longer use their limbs for propulsion -- instead, they move forward by propagating a traveling wave down their bodies like a snake,” said study leader Daniel Goldman, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Physics.
With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, the research team used high-speed x-ray imaging to visualize sandfish -- formally called Scincus scincus -- burrowing into and through sand. The team used that information to develop a physics model of the lizard’s locomotion.
The sandfish used in this study inhabits the Sahara desert in Africa and is approximately four inches long. It uses its long, wedge-shaped snout and countersunk lower jaw to rapidly bury into and swim within sand. The sandfish’s body has flattened sides and is covered with smooth shiny scales, its legs are short and sturdy with long and flattened fringed toes and its tail tapers to a fine point.
To conduct controlled experiments with the sandfish, Goldman and graduate students Ryan Maladen, Yang Ding and Chen Li built a seven-inch by eight-inch by four-inch-deep glass bead-filled container with tiny holes in the bottom through which air could be blown. The air pulses elevated the beads and caused them to settle into a loosely packed solid state. Repeated pulses of air compacted the material, allowing the researchers to closely control the density of the material.
Since a sandfish might encounter and need to move through different densities of sand in the desert, the researchers tested whether sandfish locomotion changed when burrowing through media with volume fractions of 58 and 62 percent -- typical values for desert sand.
“Since loosely packed media is easier to push through and closely packed is harder to push through, we thought there should be some difference in the sandfish’s locomotion,” said Goldman. “But the results surprised us because the density of the granular media did not affect how the sandfish traveled through the sand; it was always the same undulatory wavelike pattern.”
For a given wave frequency, the swimming speed depended only on the frequency of the wave and not on the density. Unexpectedly though, the animals could swim a bit faster in closely packed material by using a higher frequency range. The team also varied the diameter of the glass beads, but still observed similar wavelike motion.
By tracking the sandfish in the x-ray images as it swam through the glass beads, Goldman was able to characterize the sandfish’s motion -- called its kinematics -- as the form of a single-period sinusoidal wave that traveled from the head to the tail.
“The large amplitude waves over the entire body are unlike the kinematics of other undulatory swimming organisms that are the same size as the sandfish, like eels, which propagate waves that start with a small amplitude that gets larger toward the tail,” explained Goldman.
After collecting the experimental data, Goldman’s team developed a physics model to predict the speed at which sandfish swim through sand. The model was inspired by the resistive force theory, which allowed the researchers to partition the body of the sandfish into segments, each of which generated thrust and experienced drag when moving through the granular environment.
“When you balance the thrust and drag, you get motion at some velocity, but we needed to determine the forces on the animal segments because we don’t have the appropriate equations for drag force during movement through granular media,” explained Goldman.
To establish these equations, the researchers measured the granular thrust and drag forces on a small stainless steel cylindrical rod, thus allowing them to predict the wave efficiency and optimal kinematics. They found that the faster the sandfish propagate the wave, the faster they move forward through granular media -- up to speeds of six inches per second. This speed allows the animal to escape predators, the heat of the desert surface and quickly swim to ambush surface prey they detect from vibrations.
“The results demonstrate that burrowing and swimming in complex media like sand can have intricacy similar to that of movement in air or water, and that organisms can exploit the solid and fluid-like properties of these media to move effectively within them,” noted Goldman.
In addition to having a biological impact, this study’s results also have ecological significance, according to Goldman. Understanding the mechanics of subsurface movement could reveal how the actions of small burrowing organisms like worms, scorpions, snakes and lizards can transform landscapes by their burrowing actions. This research may also help engineers build sandfish-like robots that can travel through complex environments.
“If something nasty was buried in unconsolidated material, such as rubble, debris or sand, and you wanted to find it, you would need a device that could scamper on the surface, but also swim underneath the surface,” Goldman said. “Since our work aims to fundamentally understand how the best animals in nature move in these complex unstructured environments, it could be very valuable information for this type of research.”
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under Award No. PHY-0749991 and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the researcher and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.
Technical Contact: Daniel Goldman (404-894-0993); E-mail: (email@example.com)
Abby Vogel | Newswise Science News
Innovative genetic tests for children with developmental disorders and epilepsy
11.07.2018 | Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel
Oxygen loss in the coastal Baltic Sea is “unprecedentedly severe”
05.07.2018 | European Geosciences Union
For the first time ever, scientists have determined the cosmic origin of highest-energy neutrinos. A research group led by IceCube scientist Elisa Resconi, spokesperson of the Collaborative Research Center SFB1258 at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), provides an important piece of evidence that the particles detected by the IceCube neutrino telescope at the South Pole originate from a galaxy four billion light-years away from Earth.
To rule out other origins with certainty, the team led by neutrino physicist Elisa Resconi from the Technical University of Munich and multi-wavelength...
For the first time a team of researchers have discovered two different phases of magnetic skyrmions in a single material. Physicists of the Technical Universities of Munich and Dresden and the University of Cologne can now better study and understand the properties of these magnetic structures, which are important for both basic research and applications.
Whirlpools are an everyday experience in a bath tub: When the water is drained a circular vortex is formed. Typically, such whirls are rather stable. Similar...
Physicists working with Roland Wester at the University of Innsbruck have investigated if and how chemical reactions can be influenced by targeted vibrational excitation of the reactants. They were able to demonstrate that excitation with a laser beam does not affect the efficiency of a chemical exchange reaction and that the excited molecular group acts only as a spectator in the reaction.
A frequently used reaction in organic chemistry is nucleophilic substitution. It plays, for example, an important role in in the synthesis of new chemical...
Optical spectroscopy allows investigating the energy structure and dynamic properties of complex quantum systems. Researchers from the University of Würzburg present two new approaches of coherent two-dimensional spectroscopy.
"Put an excitation into the system and observe how it evolves." According to physicist Professor Tobias Brixner, this is the credo of optical spectroscopy....
Ultra-short, high-intensity X-ray flashes open the door to the foundations of chemical reactions. Free-electron lasers generate these kinds of pulses, but there is a catch: the pulses vary in duration and energy. An international research team has now presented a solution: Using a ring of 16 detectors and a circularly polarized laser beam, they can determine both factors with attosecond accuracy.
Free-electron lasers (FELs) generate extremely short and intense X-ray flashes. Researchers can use these flashes to resolve structures with diameters on the...
13.07.2018 | Event News
12.07.2018 | Event News
03.07.2018 | Event News
17.07.2018 | Information Technology
17.07.2018 | Materials Sciences
17.07.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering