Razor clams might have one of the cooler common names around. Right there with the magnificent frigate and the GoldenPalace.com monkey (yes, that’s a real animal, the discoverers put the name up for auction to make money for conservation and the online casino bought it). But the coolest thing about razor clams isn’t their name, it’s how fast they can dig. The long, tube shaped clams can bury themselves at a rate of 1 centimeter per second and go as deep at 70 centimeters into the sand. Which might not seem that fast, but remember, these are clams. They don’t have hands.
There’s been a bit of a mystery about these clams, and their digging. Their tubular body is full of a muscle called a foot, which is strong, but not really strong enough to bury the clam 70 centimeters. So how does it do it?
Turns out, the razor clam has a secret weapon. It pumps soil into the sand below it as it descends, which basically turns its tunnel into quicksand, sucking it down and making it easier to dig.
Now, that’s cool, but the really cool part is that some scientists, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, are now using that clammy trick to build robots that can do the same thing. Amos Winter, a graduate student at MIT, settled on building a razor clam mimic simply because the clams are so good at what they do. “We thought, ‘is there an animal that’s well adapted to moving through sediments on the seafloor?” Winter asked in the first press release about the RoboClam, from back in 2008. Since then, they’ve figured out the mechanism of the clam’s digging even better, publishing a paper recently in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Over at Discover, Ed Yong explains why that might be useful. “After further development, RoboClam could act as a lightweight anchor that could be easily set and unset. It could tether small robotic submarines for studying the ocean floor; help to install undersea cables or deep-water oil rigs; or even detonate buried underwater mines,” he writes.
Here’s what RoboClam looks like right now. It’s not quite as sleek as the Razor clam, but it also doesn’t have millions of years of evolution under its belt, so give it a break.