Issue Date: March 31, 2008
A Squishy Squid And Its Tough Beak: Mystery Resolved
How the Humboldt squid avoids harming its own soft, gelatinous body when it wields its tough beak to attack and eat prey is now known. The tip of the razor-sharp beak is among the world's hardest and stiffest purely organic biomaterials. But the beak attaches to the squid's muscular cheek tissue, which "has the consistency of Jell-O," says Francis W. Zok of the University of California, Santa Barbara. "You can imagine the problems you'd encounter if you attached a knife blade to a block of Jell-O and tried to use that blade for cutting. The blade would cut through the Jell-O at least as much as the targeted object." Zok, J. Herbert Waite, and colleagues discovered that the beak's stiffness gradually diminishes between the tip and the base. The base is 100 times more flexible than the tip, which reduces the impact on the cheek tissue near the beak's base (Science 2008, 319, 1816). The researchers found that the degree of stiffness at different points correlates with the ratio of chitin, water, and proteins cross-linked with 3,4-dihydroxyphenyl-L-alanine.
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