Master builders of the sea construct the equivalent of a complex five-story house that protects them from predators and funnels and filters food for them—all from snot coming out of their heads. And when these delicate mucus homes get clogged, the tadpole-looking critters—called giant larvaceans—build a new one. Usually every day or so. These so-called "snot palaces" could possibly help human construction if scientists manage to crack the mucus architectural code, said Kakani Katija, a bioengineer at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, per the AP. Her team took a step toward solving the mystery of the snot houses and maybe someday even replicating them, according to a study in Wednesday's journal Nature.
The creatures inside these houses may be small—up to about 4 inches—but they are smart and crucial to Earth's environment. They collectively drop millions of tons of carbon to the seafloor, where it stays, preventing further global warming; they take microplastics out of the water column and dump it on the sea floor; and if that's not enough, the other waste in their abandoned houses is eaten by the ocean's bottom dwellers. Katija's team used 3D laser scan technology to virtually fly through the inner chambers of the snot palaces, then recreated them with software to model the inner-workings of the structure. "Now that we have a way to visualize these structures deep below the surface, we can finally understand how they function and what roles they play in the ocean," she says in a statement.