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BIZARRE SEA CREATURE COULD TEACH HUMANS TO DO THE LOCOMOTION

BIZARRE SEA CREATURE COULD TEACH HUMANS TO DO THE
 ANDREW J MARTINEZ/GETTY IMAGES

There’s teamwork—NASA putting people on the moon, for instance, or the Mighty Ducks triumphing over Team Iceland—and then there’s teamwork. A gelatinous sea creature called a salp knows this better than anyone, forming long chains of neurologically connected individuals that work together for the greater good. That is, eating and not dying.

new study helps unravel the complexities of the salp’s jet-powered, aggregate lifestyle, showing how a creature that's actually dozens of individuals manages to get around at all. Fascinating stuff in and of itself, and potentially big news for designers of underwater vehicles.

Salps have a goofy way of going about life. Each individual in a chain can reproduce sexually to produce a solitary individual, which you can think of as a barrel. Through one end it sucks water, filtering out planktonic food. It fires the water out the other end as a jet, propelling itself forward. This solitary salp reproduces asexually to make another chain of salps.

How a solitary salp gets around is fundamentally different from how a fish moves. “When a fish wants to produce thrust, it ‘wiggles’ its body and fins, with the side effect of increasing drag from the ideal, stretched straight hydrodynamic shape,” says aerospace engineer Daniel Weihsof the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, a coauthor of the study. Salps, on the other hand, largely maintain their shape as they jet around. Plus, living together in long chains reduces the surface area exposed to the water, further reducing drag.

So as an aggregate, you’ve got what is essentially a chain of engines, which you might think could