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Ontogeny of a tessellated surface: carapace growth of the longhorn cowfish Lactoria cornuta

  • Biological armors derive their mechanical integrity in part from their geometric architectures, often involving tessellations: individual structural elements tiled together to form surface shells. The carapace of boxfish, for example, is comprised of mineralized polygonal plates, called scutes, arranged in a complex geometric pattern and nearly completely encasing the body. In contrast to artificial armors, the boxfish exoskeleton grows with the fish; the relationship between the tessellation and the gross structure of the armor is therefore critical to sustained protection throughout growth. To clarify whether or how the boxfish tessellation is maintained or altered with age, we quantify architectural aspects of the tessellated carapace of the longhorn cowfish Lactoria cornuta through ontogeny (across nearly an order of magnitude in standard length) and in a high-throughput fashion, using high-resolution microCT data and segmentation algorithms to characterize the hundreds of scutes that cover each individual. We show that carapace growth is canalized with little variability across individuals: rather than continually adding scutes to enlarge the carapace surface, the number of scutes is surprisingly constant, with scutes increasing in volume, thickness, and especially width with age. As cowfish and their scutes grow, scutes become comparatively thinner, with the scutes at the edges (weak points in a boxy architecture) being some of the thickest and most reinforced in younger animals and thinning most slowly across ontogeny. In contrast, smaller scutes with more variable curvature were found in the limited areas of more complex topology (e.g. around fin insertions, mouth, and anus). Measurements of Gaussian and mean curvature illustrate that cowfish are essentially tessellated boxes throughout life: predominantly zero curvature surfaces comprised of mostly flat scutes, and with scutes with sharp bends used sparingly to form box edges. Since growth of a curved, tiled surface with a fixed number of tiles would require tile restructuring to accommodate the surface’s changing radius of curvature, our results therefore illustrate a previously unappreciated advantage of the odd boxfish morphology: by having predominantly flat surfaces, it is the box-like body form that in fact permits a relatively straightforward growth system of this tessellated architecture (i.e. where material is added to scute edges). Our characterization of the ontogeny and maintenance of the carapace tessellation provides insights into the potentially conflicting mechanical, geometric and developmental constraints of this species, but also perspectives into natural strategies for constructing mutable tiled architectures.
Author:Lennart Eigen, Daniel BaumORCiD, Mason N. Dean, Daniel Werner, Jan Wölfer, John A. Nyakatura
Document Type:Article
Parent Title (English):Journal of Anatomy
First Page:565
Last Page:580
Date of first Publication:2022/05/31
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