Did you know that burrs clinging to animal hair led to the invention of Velcro, or that the first jet planes were designed to emulate the aerodynamic capabilities of avian species? Across the globe, scientists and engineers study organisms big and small in order to design products that mirror naturally occurring processes. This fascinating discipline, known as biomimicry or biomimetics, has shaped the world as we know it – and in many cases, inspiration for a revolutionary scientific idea comes from the unlikeliest of sources.
Fetal Membrane Sealant
The inspiration: Mussels
Thanks to a naturally excreted sealant that strongly resembles Spiderman’s web, the mussel is able to withstand surging water pressure and remain stationary. Two years ago, researchers at Northwestern University began studying this sealant in the hope of creating a substance that could be used to repair perforations of the fetal membrane that occur during pregnancy; in many cases, these microscopic holes can lead to birth defects. The synthetic substance inspired by the mussel’s sealant worked wonders, according to study leader Phillip B. Messersmith. “We tested our mussel-inspired sealant on living fetal tissue and found it was both biocompatible and effective at sealing the tiny holes — two features essential in such a material.”
The inspiration: Termites
Termite mounts resemble little more than misshapen mounds of dirt, but any entomologist can attest to the complexity of these structures. In order to properly store fungi that serve as the termite’s main food source, colonies will construct a series of vents at the base of the mound that regulate temperature throughout the structure. This ingenious method served as the inspiration for architect Mick Pearce, who designed the Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, to include a system of vents that pull in outside air and regulate it using masonry walls.
The Bionic Car
The inspiration: Tropical boxfish
The idea of streamlined automotive design is nothing new, but Mercedes-Benz took this concept to new heights in 2005 when a team of biologists and bionic engineers modeled a concept car after the tropical boxfish. The vehicle’s sleek profile improves its aerodynamic performance and fuel efficiency (70 gallons per mile), while the boxy frame provides increased stability. The boxfish, or Ostracion cubicus, is something of a marvel in its own right; the animal’s angular body is encased in fibrous shell that allows it to dart in and out of coral reefs while withstanding heavy water pressure.
The inspiration: Bats
Any second-grader can tell you that bats utilize echolocation, a process by which the flying marsupials hunt for food and gauge their physical surroundings by emitting sound waves and listening to them bounce off surfaces. In 2003, a team of British scientists used this form of communication as the basis for the Bat Cane – a lightweight, sound wave-emitting device intended for use by visually impaired individuals. The walking stick sends out roughly 60,000 sound pulses per second; the speed and intensity of the pulses tell the operator if any obstacles are blocking their path.
The inspiration: Stenocara
Many regions of the planet are hospitable to a wide variety of flora and fauna – but in the arid heat of the Namibian Desert, only the most durable organisms survive. The stenocara is one such creature – a stout beetle with an armor-like shell protecting its body. The waxy surface of this shell features hundreds of smooth protrusions separated by troughs (similar to Teflon), in which drops of water are collected and harvested. In 2001, University of Oxford Zoologist James Parker and his research team studied the beetle’s unique covering. Their findings revealed that tents and tarps designed with a similar pattern of bumps and gutters could be used as an effective water catchment method for human residents of the Namib Desert.