Humans Lack Better Designed Legs of Crabs, Grasshoppers

First Posted: Sep 13, 2012 08:21 AM EDT

The legs of the crabs and grasshoppers are shaped in such a manner that can resist twisting and compression, but human leg bones lack this. According to the study if the human leg bones were built in the same way they would have been much stronger.

"Like all Arthropods, grasshoppers and crabs have so called exoskeletons made from a very special material called cuticle," said Professor David Taylor, of the Trinity Centre for Bioengineering at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. "This exoskeleton protects the animal like a knight's suit of armour. Recently we have shown that this cuticle is in fact one of the toughest natural materials."

"In terms of evolution, having your bones on the outside has been a pretty good concept," said his colleague Dr Jan-Henning Dirks. "Since millions of years animals with exoskeletons such as insects, spiders and crustaceans can be found basically in every ecosystem in the world."

The team used latest principles of engineering mechanics materials science and biomechanics to address this question. Taylor and Dirk focused on the diameter and thickness of the bones. They used a special computer-tomography machine to generate X-ray images of insect legs with a resolution of only a few thousand of a millimeter and collected and compared data from crabs and human bones.

The details of this study that state human leg bones are relatively thick walled tubes the legs of insects are thinner well in relation to their radius, was carried in journal of the Royal Scoiety, Interface.

"This relation of wall-thickness to radius can tell us a lot about the mechanical stability of the structure," said Taylor. "Imagine the bones as simple tubes. Now, if you had a limited amount of material, what would you do? Would you make a thin solid rod or a hollow, thin walled tube? When compressed, the rod might easily bend like a straw, the hollow tube however might buckle like a beer-can."

The leg-shape of crabs represents an ideal compromise to resist both the bending and compression forces the crab experiences when walking under water.

Using the same amount of bone material and taking into account its mechanical properties, the human thighbone could be "redesigned" as an exoskeleton to be twice as strong as it is now.

"Of course there are numerous other factors determining the evolutionary advantages of endo- and exoskeletons," said Taylor. "However, we think that by taking a design engineer's view on the problem we've been able to shed some light on the evolutionary development of skeletal forms."

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