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Journal of Experimental Biology partnership with Dryad

Burrowing in marine muds by crack propagation: kinematics and forces
Kelly M. Dorgan, Sanjay R. Arwade, Peter A. Jumars


The polychaete Nereis virens burrows through muddy sediments by exerting dorsoventral forces against the walls of its tongue-depressor-shaped burrow to extend an oblate hemispheroidal crack. Stress is concentrated at the crack tip, which extends when the stress intensity factor (KI) exceeds the critical stress intensity factor (KIc). Relevant forces were measured in gelatin, an analog for elastic muds, by photoelastic stress analysis, and were 0.015±0.001 N (mean ± s.d.; N=5). Measured elastic moduli (E) for gelatin and sediment were used in finite element models to convert the forces in gelatin to those required in muds to maintain the same body shapes observed in gelatin. The force increases directly with increasing sediment stiffness, and is 0.16 N for measured sediment stiffness of E=2.7×104 Pa. This measurement of forces exerted by burrowers is the first that explicitly considers the mechanical behavior of the sediment. Calculated stress intensity factors fall within the range of critical values for gelatin and exceed those for sediment, showing that crack propagation is a mechanically feasible mechanism of burrowing. The pharynx extends anteriorly as it everts, extending the crack tip only as far as the anterior of the worm, consistent with wedge-driven fracture and drawing obvious parallels between soft-bodied burrowers and more rigid, wedge-shaped burrowers (i.e. clams). Our results raise questions about the reputed high energetic cost of burrowing and emphasize the need for better understanding of sediment mechanics to quantify external energy expenditure during burrowing.

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