Handle with care!

The ocean is filled with jellyfish. They form critical links in the marine food chain, some are immortal and others remain floating enigmas. Scientists do not want to kill or injure such squishy creatures they are trying to understand.

David Gruber, a marine biologist at the City University of New York’s Baruch College, and a team of engineers and marine scientists are announcing a new invention for studying soft sea creatures such as jellyfish or squid in their natural habitat.

The RAD sampler (short for rotary actuated dodecahedron), is essentially a 3-D printed, origami catcher’s mitt. It uses a single motor to fold itself from a 20-inch flat star into a 12-sided encasement, eight inches wide. With it, researchers can gently hold squishy sea animals temporarily for observation without harming, killing or having to bring them to the surface. This sampler, which was detailed in a paper recently in
Science Robotics
, is part of a larger effort to design robots that aid in the study of our planet’s most mysterious habitat.

Capturing and preserving sea jellies for study is hard. The animals slip out of trawls or shred inside them. Two collection devices exist, but they require careful manipulation, and animals can get stuck and destroyed in the plumbing.

Even with updated versions, many floating creatures are only trapped in memory.

“You get used to the fact that there are these animals that won’t get described, or won’t get described by you,” Brennan Phillips, an ocean engineer and Remote Operated Vehicle Pilot at the University of Rhode Island and co-author on the study, said.

One day when Phillips was studying at a microengineering lab at Harvard, a graduate student named Zhi Teoh presented a tiny paper model of a polyhedron he had hand-folded, like origami, from a single panel with tweezers under a microscope. After the meeting, Phillips, asked if Teoh could make it bigger — to capture sea creatures.

To adapt his design, Teoh overcame many challenges, including making it easy to repair, not reliant on too many motors, able to withstand the deep ocean’s pressures and gentle on the animals when it closed.

The tool can attach to grabber arms on ROVs or submarines. To operate it, a pilot steers the submersible toward the target animal while another pilot moves the sampler with a joystick. The tool is gently closed around the animal before releasing it.

The researchers first tried the encasement on a moon jelly in an aquarium before joining the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute on a cruise to test it out on an ROV in the real ocean off the coast of California. They captured and released two squids and a jellyfish at depths between 1,800 and 2,100 feet. The device was built, however, to withstand the deepest depths — more than 36,000 feet.

Right now it is relatively small, but future iterations, made stronger with titanium or stainless steel, can be scaled up or down to capture any surprising animals the researchers may encounter.The New York Times

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