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Cracked Elephant Tusks: Engineers Develop New, Durable Repair Method [VIDEO]

Nov 22, 2015 10:02 PM EST
Cracked Elephant Tusk
When an elephant's tusk cracks, it may become infected and pose serious health problems if left untreated. Ultimately, the tusk may have to be removed.
(Photo : University of Alabama at Birmingham)

An elephant's tusks are very strong, but when they experience a great deal of pressure they may crack under the stress. Now, however, it seems a team of engineers has developed a better way to repair a cracked tusk and ensure it doesn't grow any worse. 

Elephants often put extra pressure on their tusks when interacting with their natural environments or other elephants. When Birmingham Zoo veterinarians were in need of help to stop a crack from growing in their oldest elephant's tusk they reached out to researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) School of Engineering, according to a news release

Previously, cracked tusks have been repaired by adhering a metal ring to the tusk in order to stablize the crack and prevent it from advancing farther up the tusk. And that's exactly what Birmingham zoo veterinarians expected UAB engineers to do for their 35-year-old male African elephant named Bulwagi. (Scroll to read more...)

"When the team at the Zoo asked me to create this metal ring, I thought, 'we can do better,'" Brian Pillay, director of UAB's Materials Processing and Applications Development Center, said in the release. "We can use what we know about materials development to make something that will work better for the elephant."

Such repair techniques remain prevalent in the field because a cracked tusk can quickly become infected if not taken care of properly. Ultimately, an infection can then lead to other health problems or may eventually have to even be removed -- similar to what would happen if a human's tooth were to crack. The new innovative method for treating an elephant's cracked tusk uses engineering strategies involving composite fiberglass, a carbon-fiber band and resin that would normally be used in structures like bridges. 

"We worked with Dr. Pillay's lab to practice applying this product on a PVC pipe to start off with as a model," Richard Sim, an associate veterinarian at the Zoo, explained in the release, adding that it took a couple tries to get the application process right. "We put a number of layers of carbon fiber and fiberglass around the tusk, and then used a vacuum pump to suck the resin, kind of like an epoxy, up into that product, and it set and became a really hard structure that is going to resist the forces that resulted in the crack. No one has done this before, so it's our hope that this will be a process that will stand the test of time."

In the end, their method not only proved to be successful, but is also a great deal lighter, stronger and tougher than steel. 

"The standard ring that would have been traditionally used is four to five times heavier than what Bulwagi has now. This is a significantly better solution," Pillay added

While the crack in Bulwagi's tusk has already spread to such a degree that he may loose the tusk anyways, researchers hope their new method will help other elephants in the future. Therefore, the next step is monitor the growth of his crack in order to determine how, and if, their creation will work in the long run. 

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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