‘Wandering Meatloaf’- A weird creature with Rare Iron Mineral in its teeth

Wasim Raza

Mosaic image showing rows of sharp teeth in a mollusc's radula.
The teeth of Cryptochiton stelleri are among the hardest organic objects known in nature.
Credit: Northwestern University

A new study shows a bizarre mollusk dubbed “wandering meatloaf” has teeth made of a rare iron mineral found only along the rocky coastline, according to the researchers.

The giant Gumboot Chiton, also known as the Wandering Meatloaf, is the largest known species of chiton, a species of marine mollusk with an oval-shaped, flattened body and overlapping plates, similar to a pillbug. In addition to having hard teeth, chicons have a flexible tongue-like radula as well. When searching for food, chitons scrape their toothed radula across rocks to capture algae.

Santa Barbaraite was found in the teeth of the mollusk Cryptochiton stelleri, nicknamed the “wandering meatloaf” because of its reddish-brown body, dark shell, and 14-inch (36 cm) length. These particles could enhance tooth toughness without adding significant weight.

For their reddish-brown color and ovoid shape, Cryptochiton stelleri has earned the nickname “wandering meatloaf.” Their weirdness doesn’t end there, however, with the discovery that their teeth are made from a mineral found only in rocks.

When you are part of the same taxonomic group as octopuses and oysters, you have to be a bit strange to stand out. Since chitons move along on a single foot and feed on algae, bacteria, and small invertebrates, chitons appear to be no different from marine snails. Dr. Derk Joester of Northwestern University, on the other hand, was intrigued by their teeth.

Cryptochiton stelleri in the wild.
The bulky mollusc Cryptochiton stelleri has been nicknamed the ‘wandering meatloaf’.
Credit: Jerry Kirkhart

They scrape their teeth against the rocks for food. Unless they have a dentition similar to that in many other animals, despite their ability to grow new teeth, they probably wouldn’t be able to keep up.  Chitons have evolved an extremely hard material that is attached to a softer radula that resembles a tongue. As a result, the combination of an ultra-hard object supported by a living shock-absorbing works well. However, Joester discovered that instead of a sudden transition, they gradually shift from hard to soft.

Joester and colleagues studied C using synchrotron and electron microscopes in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  Stunning detail can be seen in the stelleri’s teeth (also known as gumboot chitons).

In this study, they found an amorphous iron hydroxy phosphate mineral called santabarbaraite. “This mineral has never before been seen in a biological context and has only appeared in geological specimens,” Joester said.  Some creatures might have missed out on santabarbaraite’s advantages; “it is strong and low density, so it might toughen the teeth without adding much weight.”

C is where the Santa Barbaraite flake distribution occurs.  It consists of a hollow structure connecting the head of the tooth to the radula. Josester compares it to a human tooth’s root.  When the stylus is taken from top to bottom, it becomes 3–8 times harder at a distance of less than a millimeter.

These mollusks could help scientists advance 3-D printing.

Humans may find such materials useful even if they do not scrape rocks for food. As part of the experiment, Joester and colleagues created an ink that can be used to print hard structures in a 3D printer. Joester found that the ink could be used to build extremely hard structures as long as it was not allowed to stand too long between being mixed and used for printing.

“A mechanical structure is only as strong as its weakest link, so finding an alternative solution about how the chiton connects its ultrahard tooth to a soft layer is fascinating,” Joester said. Modern manufacturing is still experiencing a challenge with this, so we look to organisms like the chiton for inspiration, which has had thousands of million years to develop.”

A virtual section of a single tooth head and upper stylus, generated from a 3D reconstruction as determined by a synchrotron microcomputer.
Image Credit: Northwestern University





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