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Seashells: the Plainness and Beauty of Their Mathematical Description

Jorge Picado (Universidade de Coimbra - Portugal)

Departamento de Matemática

Universidade de Coimbra


One might at first tend to think that the growth of plants and animals, because of their elaborate forms, are ruled by highly complex laws. However, this is surprisingly not always true: many aspects of the growth of plants and animals may be described by remarkably simple mathematical laws. An obvious example of this are the seashells and snails, as we show here: with a very simple model it is possible to describe and generate any of the many types of seashells that one may find classified in a good seashell bookguide. The fact that the animal which lives at the open edge of the shell places new shell material always in that edge, and faster on one side than the other, makes the shell to grow in a spiral. The rates at which shell material is secreted at different points of the open edge are presumably determined by the anatomy of the animal. And, surprisingly, even fairly small changes in such rates can have quite tremendous effects on the overall shape of the shell, which is in the origin of the existence of a great diversity of shells.

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This article uses LiveGraphics3D, a Java applet which displays three-dimensional figures as generated by Mathematica. Any figure displayed with LiveGraphics3D can be rotated by clicking and dragging the mouse on the image.


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Jorge Picado (Universidade de Coimbra - Portugal), "Seashells: the Plainness and Beauty of Their Mathematical Description," Convergence (February 2010), DOI:10.4169/loci003294