Snail locomotion is remarkably cool. A muscle runs along the length of the snail’s foot; this muscle contracts and travels from the back of the foot to the front, while its slime adheres it to the surface upon which it travels. Then it expands the muscle, shoving itself forward.

The thing is, scientists did not have a really detailed sense of how this process worked, until an MIT team led by Anette Hosoi brought some snails into the lab and trained cameras on them while they slimed around. They mapped out the architecture of gastropod motion, then went one better — by creating their own robotic version! The robosnail has five movable segments that reproduce the muscular dynamic, while travelling on a 1.5-millimeter layer of Laponite slime. Apparently it can even travel upside down. But, as news@Nature reports:

So has the world been crying out for a robotic snail? “One can easily argue that snail locomotion is slow, slimy and inefficient,” admit the researchers in their paper. But they also point out that because gastropods have only one foot, it is much easier to build mechanical analogues of snails than of two-footed people or four-footed animals.

And although they are slow, snails can crawl over pretty much anything, making them extremely versatile at getting around different environments.

According to MIT’s own press release, this experiment could also offer some insights into the way blood flows into veins, since it follows the same physics: Fluid flow within a flexible boundary. The experiment could also, of course, eventually create a massive army of killer slugbots, raining death upon the battlefield, inch by inch.

(Thanks to Steve Emrich for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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