The practice of biomimicry can help us identify solutions to human problems. Further, what are nature’s strategies when solving problems?
What are some examples?
Although we use an object we may not think of what might have determined its design. The Wright Brothers studied birds in an effort to build a more efficient flying machine. More recently, the Kingfisher’s heavy straight bill served to influence the design of the Japanese bullet train. By examining the Kingfisher’s bill engineers were able to reduce the sonic boom effect while increasing the speed of the fastest train in the world, the Maglev Bullet Train.
Likewise, the owl’s trailing edge fringe has provided clues to producing silent and more efficient onshore wind turbines. The owl is equipped to hunt in silence as a result of its wing structure. New materials which are capable of imitating the surface of an owl’s wings are being used in an effort to produce more energy while at the same time reducing noise.
How did Velcro come about?
While we use Velcro to secure our shoes, clothing and other items, we may not have thought about how it came to be. During a bird hunting trip, George de Mestral noticed that burdock thistles clung to his clothes. When he tried to remove the thistles he noticed that not only could he remove the thistles easily but he could also reattach them. He examined the thistles under a microscope and found out that the burdock plant has a system of hooks that were capable of attaching themselves to loops of thread. Further research and experimentation led to the product we know today as Velcro all thanks to the burdock plant and some astute observations.
What can we learn from the Hippo?
Scientists are looking at designing more efficient temperature controls in buildings and have discovered that by examining the hippo’s semi-aquatic lifestyle and the protective quality of its skin we can produce a structure that is cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Furthermore, we may examine
‘hippo sweat’ in an effort to produce a more efficient sun screen product as hippos do not get sunburned.
George Washington’s dentist used the tusks and jaws of hippos from which to carve teeth for George Washington’s dentures. It is believed that George Washington’s dental problems were the result of having the ‘misfortune to cracking of Walnuts in his Youth’. Since hippopotamus ivory is denser than both elephant and walrus ivory, Washington’s dentist, Dr. John Greenwood used this variety of ivory to mimic the strong teeth George Washington was accustomed to chewing with earlier in his life. Even with the best of dentures George Washington was known to have suffered from facial pain as evidenced in some of the portraits done of him at the time. George Washington appears to be very serious in these paintings.
This Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington is in sharp contrast to the late eighteenth century practice of unrestrained smiling both in portraits and in daily life. It was noted in France that people began smiling again with the emergence of scientific dentistry. Prior to improvements in dentistry people were expected to keep their mouths closed.
Scientists continue to examine materials to be used for dentures and look to nature for solutions when addressing issues of tooth resilience and weakness. Teeth can withstand enormous amounts of compressive biting without cracking or being damaged considerably. Enamel is the hardest substance in the body and scientists are looking to nature for innovation in biomaterials design.
Finally, while there are additional examples of successful applications of biomimicry, the ability of sheep to recognize faces is somewhat of a mystery. Scientists believe that sheep may be capable of conscious thought thus enabling them to remember faces. The ability to remember faces is critical in many areas of everyday life most notably in areas of law enforcement. Granted that it is not an option to deploy sheep in large crowds, continued research into why sheep are more capable of recognizing faces than their human counterparts could be beneficial in a number of applications that involve security and surveillance.
- Geckos feet contain millions of tiny hairs on each foot (setae). These setae branch off into pad-like objects called spatulae. Each time a gecko makes contact with a surface a strong bond is created. Scientists looking to create an adhesive strip capable of carrying large loads examined the foot of the gecko and found that the tendons hold the gecko to its surface, while the flexibility of the foot allows for its release. Potential uses including patching wounds inside the human body are on the horizon.
- Fish are capable of a wide variety of swimming techniques. Robotic fish that can mimic these techniques are useful in a port environment when there is a need to detect pollution or other harmful agents in a specific area.
- The rhinoceros is unable to grow new horns after an aggressive battle. Rather, the horns self-repair when a protein in the horn is exposed to air and fills the crack. Small cracks in concrete can lead to the failure of a structure; however, self-healing concrete containing microcapsules filled with resin can flood the crack and repair the concrete.
- High school students can enroll in courses such as “STEM Advanced Engineering & Emerging Technology” where they can work on projects designed to mimic the mantis shrimp’s ability to store mechanical energy and release it in an instant. This device would use directed forces to open closed or locked doors in a confined space where normal breaching devices would not be applicable.
- Baumeister, Dayna, and others. Biomimicry resource handbook: a seed bank of best practices. Missola, MT, Biomimicry 3.8, 2013. 1 v.
- Benyus, Janine M. Biomimicry: innovation inspired by nature. New York, Morrow, c1997. 308 p.
- Biologically inspired robot behavior engineering. Richard J. Duro, José Santos, Manuel Graña, editors. Heidelberg, New York, Physica-Verlag, c2003. 438 p.
- Biologically inspired robotics. Editors, Yunhui Liu and Dong Sun. Boca Raton, Taylor & Francis/CRC Press, 2012.
- Harman, Jay. The shark’s paintbrush: biomimicry and how nature is inspiring innovation. Ashland, OR, White Cloud Press, c2013. 339 p.
- Jones, Colin. The smile revolution in eighteenth century Paris. Oxford, United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 2014.
- Mara, Wil. From gecko feet to adhesive tape. Ann Arbor, MI, Cherry Lake Publishing, 2014. 32 p.
- Mazzoleni, Ilaria, and Shauna Price. Architecture follows nature: biomimetic principles for innovative design. Boca Raton, CRC Press, 2013. 242 p.
more print resources...
Search on "biomimicry," "biomimetics," or "bionics"
in the Library of Congress Online
Maglev bullet train. From the Joint Nature Conservation Committee website.
Used with permission of Ken Larsen.
Wind turbine. From the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management website.
Drawing of barn owls from Birds of Britain. p. 190.
Burdock flower head.
Used with permission of Janis Stone.
Courtesy of Nanette Gibbs.
An adult and baby hippopotamus at the National Zoo, Washington, D.C. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
George Washington’s dentures.
Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association.
Portrait of George Washington painted by Gilbert Stuart.
Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association
A STEM student working on a biomimicry project based on the mantis shrimp.
Courtesy of Nanette Gibbs.