The diving suit of the future could be a fur coat. Mechanical engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are developing a new kind of artificial fur designed to keep humans warmer underwater. The material is inspired by the fur coats of aquatic mammals like seals and sea otters, and it works by trapping air in layers in order to keep water out. 

According to Popular Science, the team of mechanical engineers, led by Alice Nasto, used laser-cut acrylic molds to shape a variety of hairy surfaces made from silicon rubber. They experimented with different lengths and densities, discovering that longer, more closely spaced hairs were better at trapping air.

In essence, rows of hairs can act like rows of tubes. The closer that hairs are together, the better such ‘tubes’ are at holding air,” explains Popular Science's Charles Q. Choi. “The longer the hairs are, the more air these ‘tubes’ can trap.”

According to Nasto, the research is geared both towards creating a warmer diving suit for swimmers and finding easier-to-build water-repellant materials. As Nasto explains, while most previous research on water-repellant materials looked at structures approximately the size of molecules or cells, her team’s artificial fur is much larger—millimeters to centimeters in size—and therefore easier to fabricate.

But otter fur-inspired diving suits aren’t the only way Nasto’s team takes inspiration from the natural world. “Our research group studies a lot of biologically-inspired fluid mechanics problems, such as how snails use slime for locomotion, or how water striders walk on water," she tells Popular Science.

[h/t: Popular Science]