We tested the hypothesis that an increase in relative humidity (RH) causes changes in the mechanical properties of the keratin of adhesive gecko foot hairs (setae). We measured the effect of RH on the tensile deformation properties, fracture, and dynamic mechanical response of single isolated tokay gecko setae and strips of the smooth lamellar epidermal layer. The mechanical properties of gecko setae were strongly affected by RH. The complex elastic modulus (measured at 5 Hz) of a single seta at 80% RH was 1.2 GPa, only 39% of the value when dry. An increase in RH reduced the stiffness and increased the strain to failure. The loss tangent increased significantly with humidity, suggesting that water absorption produces a transition to a more viscous type of deformation. The influence of RH on the properties of the smooth epidermal layer was comparable with that of isolated seta, with the exception of stress at rupture. These values were two to four times greater for the setae than for the smooth layer. The changes in mechanical properties of setal keratin were consistent with previously reported increases in contact forces, supporting the hypothesis that an increase in RH softens setal keratin, which increases adhesion and friction.
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