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Jan ZNZ Bio Mimicry Article

Jan ZNZ Bio Mimicry Article


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Published by David Fox

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Published by: David Fox on Dec 30, 2008
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Biomimicry: Following Nature’s Example


ccording to legend, Daedelus and Icarus watched birds fly then crafted wings to escape imprisonment. If this were true, it

wouldn’t be the first time people copied Nature—or the last. From wings to sonar, many an “ah-ha!” came from figuring out how Nature solves a problem. Today, as we are challenged to create products, buildings, or systems that are more efficient, faster, more colorful, lighter, or stronger, we still only need to look to Nature for ideas.



Zoo photos: © Ken Bohn, SDZ

The secret of the gecko’s sticky toes is inspiring new kinds of adhesives, including a biodegradable one for surgical use and another with four times the typical sticking power.

BEEN THERE, SOLVED THAT Imitation is more than a sincere form of flattery, it’s also a smart way to survive and thrive. Biomimicry—a discipline that searches the “database” of the natural world to find solutions to problems that puzzle us—offers a way for humans to ease their learning curve. There is not a structural or functional challenge facing us that has not already been answered by thousands of other life-forms. Simply put, biomimicry is human innovation inspired by the proven designs and strategies found in Nature. Nature-based solutions are the cream of the crop: elegant, efficient, and in harmony with the environment.

Lessons learned from spider web structures are a boon to bridge engineering. The molecular structure of the silk itself could also be mimicked to create biodegradable sutures for certain types of surgery.

Engineers are studying cockroaches to design sprawl-legged robots that can move nimbly over changing terrain.

BY JOHN ANDY PHILLIPS, Ph.D., San Diego Zoo Conservation Research

Nature, like any good scientist, has learned from trial and error. If you think about it, the natural world is really the ultimate research and development department. It’s been testing and re-testing designs and strategies for billions of years. Those that fail to meet the challenge are “voted off the island.” NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN As stewards of thousands of species of plants and animals, the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park are virtual “how-to” libraries stocked with solutions, not to mention inspirations, for future innovation. Although modest in comparison to Nature’s breadth, our collections provide insight that could help find solutions to design issues.

Zoo photos: © Ken Bohn, SDZ

Finding a way to mimic the way rhino horn forms and repairs itself could lead to better impact-resistant and self-repairing materials that could be used in car bumpers, among other things.



Butterfly wings are actually clear—the colors and patterns we see are produced by the reflective properties and arrangement of the tiny scales covering them. The same idea is being put to use in electronic screens.

For example, geckos have given people new ways to make things stick. Spider silk teaches volumes about fiber strength. Termite mounds hold architectural answers to heating and cooling buildings. We have a lot to learn from even the most simple forms of life— plants annually remove more than 1,200 gigatons (billion tons) of carbon from the atmosphere, and then sequester that carbon in plant growth. If it weren’t for plants cleansing the atmosphere, we’d be in big trouble. And for many species, plants are also their home. What if the roofs of our homes not only provided shelter but mimicked plants by removing carbon from the atmosphere? And the list of answers goes on. But wait—there’s more! All of the natural inventions are biodegradable and no waste is created. Since Nature is the ultimate recycler, perhaps biomimicry means never having to say “impossible” when it comes to preserving our planet. COPYCATS LAND ON THEIR FEET Awe-inspiring innovations surround us. The trick is to find out how to mimic these inventions in a sustainable manner. As we look at the magic and beauty

Hooked barbs on seed pods like this one were the inspiration for Velcro®.

of the animals and plants around us, we should ask ourselves, “What secret does this organism hold? What lessons can it teach me?” This seemingly simple shift in thinking requires a new way of looking at the animals and plants we think we know. It takes a deep understanding of how the design and function of an animal or plant’s parts serve to support its survival. Our growing and changing society calls for products and processes that are sustainable, optimize rather than maximize, are energy efficient, and eliminate waste. The current generation of young students and entrepreneurs will be integrally linked to these challenges. Giving today’s students opportunities to discover and develop designs inspired by nature prepares them to address the challenges that they will encounter. Increasingly, industrialists and environmentalists will be required to work in harmony so that economic and environmental sustainability coexist. As we look for ways to keep our planet healthy and thriving, we only need to ask, “What would Nature do?” Turning to nature for inspiration will be the answer, as it has been so many times before.

Biomimicry and the San Diego Zoo
The vision of the San Diego Zoo is to connect people to wildlife and conservation, and promoting biomimicry is one of many ways we do that. We’ve partnered with the City of San Diego to become the world’s first biomimicry hub, to help connect people’s design challenges to Nature’s solutions. For the first time in San Diego, corporations and educational institutions can tap into “Nature’s R & D Library” guided by our knowledgeable staff. We offer a few ways to discover what Nature knows: ■ Corporate retreats at our facilities that include a biomimicry primer, as well as work sessions with a multidisciplinary group of experts to help develop naturebased solutions to specific design problems.
Understanding how leaves collect, store, and transmit energy helps make solar energy panels more efficient.

■ Educational materials, curricula, and behind-the-scenes tours at the Zoo and Wild Animal Park that highlight real-life examples of nature’s innovation. ■ Biomimicry introduction programs at our facilities. To learn more about our biomimicry opportunities, visit www.sandiegozoo.org/biomimicry.



All photos © Ken Bohn, SDZ

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