Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD.

The Biomimicry Manual: What can the Sea Snake Teach Us About Viagra, Boat Hulls and Desalination?

biomimicry, sea snake, marine reptile, gas exchange, desalination, neutral buoyancy, erectile dysfunction, cleaning boat hull, cleaning surfaces, the bends

Let’s say you decided to live in the ocean. Can you imagine the challenges you would face? Lot’s of land animals have done exactly that, though the transition from land to sea happens gradually through vast generations of evolutionary time. Whales, seals, manatees, otters, penguins, and marine iguanas have done it, some more completely than others. Whales and manatees sleep and give birth there, losing their legs and any ability to return to the land. Sea snakes are another group of animals that has made a complete transition. Most of them never leave the ocean, and they can’t move on land. How do they do it, and what can their saltwater tricks teach us? Find out on today’s The Biomimicry Manual.


biomimicry, sea snake, marine reptile, gas exchange, desalination, neutral buoyancy, erectile dysfunction, cleaning boat hull, cleaning surfaces, the bends

Sea snakes are descended from incredibly poisonous land-dwelling cobras, kraits, and mambas that ventured into the oceans about five million years ago. And like their relatives, sea snakes are among the deadliest of creatures. One bite can deliver ten times the venom needed to kill a human. Lucky for us, most species are peaceful, though maybe a little more curious than you might like. They are fascinated with snorkels and fins. That trait alone could kill the faint of heart.

The sea snake has acquired exquisite adaptations to her watery existence. For one thing, she is a strong swimmer, undulating her paddle-shaped tail and flat eel-like body to propel herself through the water. And, just as every boat owner knows, she needs to keep her body free from algae and barnacles and other parasites that would slow her down and make her less efficient. Her clever and distinctly snakey solution is to shed her skin. She changes wardrobe much more often than a land snake, and more than she needs to for growth. She rubs on coral to loosen her skin, then hooks it onto something hard, and crawls out. Could boat hulls or hospital walls borrow this trick? Can we design a constantly shedding surface?

She has other brilliant design ideas as well. Like a land snake, she breathes air, and would drown if water filled her lung. A valve in her nose prevents this, sealing shut underwater, to keep the water out. It opens inward when she needs to take a breath, and holds it shut with penis-like, blood-engorged erectile tissue. My turgid spam folder suggests to me there may be a huge market for this idea.

Did I say ‘lung,’ as in singular? That’s right. Like all snakes, the sea snakes has just one. But hers is the largest, extending all the way to the base of her tail. With it, one huge breath lets her dive 250 feet deep and stay down for up to two hours. Which brings us to another neat trick worth borrowing. Parts of her lung regulate her buoyancy. As she dives down, water pressure increases, and her lung volume decreases. With it, she becomes less buoyant as she goes down. This neutral buoyancy is an efficient way to dive, and she can swim slowly and steadily down without expending more energy to ‘fight the float.’

biomimicry, sea snake, marine reptile, gas exchange, desalination, neutral buoyancy, erectile dysfunction, cleaning boat hull, cleaning surfaces, the bends

Steven Vogel of Duke University is exploring this gas exchange. It turns out that she can breathe through her skin. Oxygen diffuses from sea water into tiny blood vessels, while carbon dioxide and nitrogen diffuse out. She gets up to 22% of her oxygen this way. Neat trick for avoiding the bends! Could we use this idea to construct membranes that selectively allow gas molecules to pass through? Can we remove oxygen or other dissolved gases from water, or carbon dioxide or toxic gases from the air?

And here’s one more idea. Like other land animals that have adapted to marine life, Madame Sea Snake has to deal with extra salt. Mammals simply pass it in their urine, but birds and reptiles have weak kidneys, and can’t remove enough. Penguins and marine iguanas solve the problem with nasal glands, while sea turtles cry salty tears. The sea snake has come up with a gland under her tongue. Can we use these ideas to desalinate water?

By now you are loving this beautiful girl and you want to snorkel with her. So picture this. In 1932, the passengers aboard a steamer from Malaysia saw a line of sea snakes 10 feet wide and 62 miles long. I recommend you keep your hands and feet in the boat.

+ The Biomimicry Manual

An evolutionary biologist, writer, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry professional in the Biomimicry 3.8 BPro certification program, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums‘ Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.

Related Posts

LEAVE A COMMENT

or your inhabitat account below

Let's make sure you're a real person:


2 Comments

  1. Tamsin Woolley-Barker, PhD. Tamsin Woolley-Barker, ... September 23, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Thanks for reading!

  2. Couchsurfingcook Couchsurfingcook September 23, 2013 at 4:33 am

    Amazing!

  • Read Inhabitat

  • Search Categories

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

  • Browse by Keyword

get the free Inhabitat newsletter

Submit this form
popular today
all time
most commented
more popular stories >
more popular stories >
more popular stories >
What are you looking for? (Solar, HVAC, etc.)
Where are you located?