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Images: Seal Whiskers Inspire Marine Technology

Heather Beem is closely examining seal whiskers for insights to design new undersea technology. (New England Aquarium; inset: Heather Beem, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Oceanographic engineer Heather Beem's interest in the natural world was piqued as a child when she accompanied her father, an aquatic biologist, into the field to collect water samples. (Courtesy of Heather Beem)
Scientists at the Marine Science Center at Rostock University in Germany used earmuffs and blindfolds in experiments that showed that seals use their whiskers to detect water patterns to track fish. (Marine Science Center at Rostock University)
Currents flowing around cylindrical riser legs and cables in offshore structures have posed engineering dilemmas, because they induce vibrations that cause structural fatigue. Close study of other cylindrical underwater structures—seal whiskers—could offer insights to engineers. (Illustration by Jack Cook & Eric S. Taylor/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Graphics Services)
MIT researchers are pioneers in marine biomimetics: using features observed in nature to inform the design of new technologies. One example is RoboTuna, an underwater vehicle that employed efficient swimming motions observed in fish. (Olin Robotics Lab)
Do seals use their whiskers to “feel” the surrounding water patterns to track fish? (Illustration by Heather Beem and Eric S. Taylor/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Graphics Services)
(Illustration by Eric S. Taylor/ Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Graphics Services)
A close-up side and top views of harbor seal whiskers reveal that they are not circular, but wavy and elliptical. (Hanke et al., Journal of Experimental Biology, 2010)
Heather Beem used stereolithography to build a plastic replica of a harbor seal whisker that was precisely shaped but 50 times larger than a real whisker. (Heather Beem, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Heather Beem experimented with her large-scale model of a seal whisker in a test tank, closely examining how it responded to water flowing around it and documenting how vortices formed off of it. (Tony Pulsone)
Heather Beem towed her large-scale replica of a seal whisker in a test tank. To visualize the vortices forming around it, she added tiny plastic particles, which are transported along with the fluid flow. A laser illuminates the particles, and a camera captures the patterns they form. (Heather Beem, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Renditions of the 2-D flow behind different shapes show that a  circular cylinder (bottom) sheds large, coherent vortices, which leads to large vibrations. An elliptical cylinder (top), such as a seal whisker, sheds vortices, which are also coherent, but relatively small, leading in smaller vibrations. (Heather Beem, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Heather Beem designed a prototype flow sensor that incorporates seal whiskers’ distinctive geometry. The “whisker” moves freely at its base, as a seal’s does in its cheek. (Heather Beem, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
Heather Beem’s test setup represented what whiskers experience when they are following a fish trail. A large cylinder upstream of the whisker/sensor generates a hydrodynamic trail of vortices similar to fish wakes. Red dye dripped into the tank colorize the vortices behind the “fish,” and cameras captured the patterns. Strain gauges measure the whisker’s vibrations while it was towed behind the fish. (Illustration by Eric S. Taylor/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Graphics Services)
Heather Beem’s measurements showed that as a whisker encounters vortices, it vibrates, moving up and down, perfectly over and under and in between the oncoming red-colored vortices, like a slaloming skier. Based on how much and how fast their whiskers vibrate, seals could estimate the direction and size of the vortices’ source. (Illustration by Eric S. Taylor/Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Graphics Services)
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