April 17 (UPI) -- In an effort to figure out which physical characteristics best correlate with puncturing performance, scientists chose to study the sharpness of viper fangs.
"Viper fangs are a good case study for examining the effects of shape on sharpness, as they are specialized for puncture," Philip S. L. Anderson, an assistant professor of integrative biology at the University of Illinois, told UPI. "Lots of animals have sharp teeth, but they often use those teeth for a variety of functions -- prey capture, mastication, grooming."
Viper fangs work like hypodermic needles. They are designed and deployed to puncture the flesh of prey and deliver a lethal dose of venom.
Anderson and his colleagues wanted to know what makes viper fangs so efficient. They set out to measure sharpness.
But what exactly is sharpness?
"This is really the heart of the study, as we didn't use any definition that was different from what others have used," Anderson said. "Instead, we tested puncture performance to determine which of these previously used measures best correlates with performance."
Researchers sourced 28 viper fangs from the Field Museum in Chicago. Using special instruments, scientists measured the roundness of each fang tip, the fang's surface area and the ability of each fang to puncture.
The team of scientists also created metal punches with different physical characteristics and pitted their puncturing performance against the viper fangs.
"Using synthetic punches, courtesy of our collaborators at Georgia Tech, allowed us to isolate functional effects of different measurements while the viper fangs allowed us to test whether the measures worked on actual biological structures," Anderson said.
The analysis, published this week in the journal Biology Letters, showed the angle of the fang's tip was the best measure of sharpness, the ability to puncture.
The study's authors hope their work will help scientists develope more efficient needles for various medical procedures.
"Biomedical engineers have been looking to biology for inspiration in the design of medical needles for many years," Anderson said. "Our particular study gives new insight into what aspect of tip shape potentially has the greatest effect on puncture efficiency, which may be useful for certain needle designs."