Many momentous things happened in 2016, even leaving the referendum aside; The Great Cull (as we call it in the AS broom cupboard) saw off a good percentage of all known celebrities, The Olympics took place in Rio de Janeiro, Leicester City won the Premier League somehow, and some orange bloke with small hands became US president. But most importantly of all, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced they were working on an otter-inspired furry wetsuit. Cleary the biggest news story of the year, and not at all eclipsed by anything else that year, it was barely off the front pages for many, many months.

There are plenty of inventions that borrow heavily from the animal world. Radar, for example, or Japan’s bullet train (the shape of which was based on a Kingfishers head, don’tcha know). But MIT’s furry wetsuit tops our list for most anticipated. We’re eagerly waiting to try it out on the chilly shores of ol’ Blighty.

Well, three years later, we’re still waiting. But just to keep the interest alive, at least in our little corner of the internet, we thought we’d give a little run down of the idea for those of you who might have been living under a rock three years ago.

The semi-aquatic sea otter lacks the layer of blubber that protects other marine mammals. Even the tyre that’s ever-growing around our midriffs isn’t that good of an insulator (so there’s my excuse in tatters).

So how do they stay so warm and adorable? (And they really are adorable – sea otters hold hands when they sleep to stop themselves getting separated. It’s OK to cry at how cute that is. Go on, let it out.) The water they live in gets pretty damn cold.

Well, turns out they’re ridiculously hairy. Sea otters are covered with a staggering 150,000 hairs per square centimetre. By comparison, Eurasian otters only have about 80,000. And even the most bearded of hipsters only manages about 100,000 ON THEIR ENTIRE HEAD.

And it’s this hair that helps them not end up like Ötzi the Iceman.  Because their hair is so dense, it traps pockets of air in between the layers, keeping them both warm and, believe it or not, dry, even when diving.

But their hair is also pretty spikey. Under a microscope, they’re barbed and rough. Which helps keep their warm air trapped against their skin.

MIT’s involvement came about after a visit to a wetsuit manufacturer got them thinking about how to produce a lightweight, highly flexible insulating suit specifically for surfers. They looked around the natural world a bit and, I’m sure, after coo-ing and aww-ing over how goddamn cute those little chaps are they thought ‘them sea otters are nailing this’.

MIT’s Professor Anette (Peok) Hosoi,  graduate student Alice Nasto, postdoc José Alvarado, and applied mathematics instructor Pierre-Thomas Brun, and visiting researchers Marianne Regli, and Christophe Clanet, of École Polytechnique, France, created a series of faux-fur pelts that act like the otter’s fur.

Instead of using thick neoprene for insulation, the team made a series of air-trapping textiles out of a soft, cast-able rubber. From the results, they worked out a formula, breaking down the various factors that make the fur so effective. The plan is that this will all form a kind-of recipe for a lighter, warmer, more flexible drysuit.

One of the test textiles. copyright MIT.

Unfortunately, it’s not quite what I personally was hoping for; I wanted to take to the water dressed like I’d draped myself in a BEAR. In my head this surfers of the future would all be dressed like DiCaprio in the Revenant; a tangled brown mass of all-over-beard. But instead, the test textiles look more like the rough side of Velcro. I can’t say I’m not disappointed.

Still, hopefully soon (and hopefully before the world’s remaining celebrities are wiped out in the next cull) a test suit will surface, whatever it looks like, and we too can sleep hand-in-hand as we bob about our frigid waters, dreaming up the next big animal-inspired, headline-hogging invention to benefit all humankind.



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