A fish with a suction cup could inspire the next big scientific breakthrough

A (deceased) Northern Clingfish demonstrates its suction ability (Video: Science Friday)

Scientists show off a (deceased) Northern Clingfish’s remarkable powers of suction. (Video: Science Friday)

Adam Summers is a biologist with an extensive knowledge of sea life. At SanJuanIsland, a TEDx event on one of the many islands of the Salish Sea, Summers details his journeys tracking the wildlife of the area, from swimming with manta rays to investigating the suction cups of clingfish, wacky little creatures that might just hold the key to better surgical tools.

A Northern clingfish in Washington photographed by Summers‘s team on San Juan Island (Photo: Petra Ditsche, University of Washington) Petra Ditsche, UW

A Northern clingfish photographed by Summers‘s team on San Juan Island (Photo: Petra Ditsche, University of Washington)

“The natural historian in me has been flipping rocks on these islands for more than twenty years,” Summers says. “Looking at this little fish attached to slimy, irregular surfaces … I became fascinated: ‘How does this suction cup work? Could it be imitated? What does the fish do with this suction cup?’”

Summers and his team at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories on San Juan Island began studying the fish, he says, aiming to figure out how exactly these creatures cling tight to slippery, slimy, bumpy, slick surfaces so well and how this could be imitated.

His team found that the rougher the surface, the better a clingfish clung to it (up to a point). The fish were able to cling to a surface as smooth as glass, but stuck much, much better to irregular, rough surfaces — like sandpaper — at times with a suction powerful enough to support over 300 times their body weight.

It was a baffling finding; for most suction cups, the reverse was true. How was this fish succeeding at something at which so many others failed?

The team found the answer in the suction cup’s structure. “This is not the suction cup that you used on the end of a dart to shoot at your sibling’s forehead,” Summers says. “This is a very different kind of suction cup.” The cup is covered in soft and pliable hairs that interlock with rough surfaces, Summers says, and keep the cup still — locked in place in even quite adverse conditions.

An electron micrograph of a Northern clingfish suction cup (Photo: Adam Summers)

An electron micrograph of a Northern clingfish suction cup. (Photo: Adam Summers)

If we were to recreate this suction cup on land, Summers says, the possible applications would be many. “Lifting an organ during surgery so you don’t have to grab it … walking along the intestine during laparoscopic surgery [instead of] pinching as you’re pulling the camera along,”  he explains — any situation where sticking to a slick, rough or uneven surface is crucial.

To learn more about Summers’ solutions from the sea, watch his entire talk below:

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