Inventors getting ideas from the strategies of plants, birds, fish and mammals

Biomimicry tours of the National Botanic Gardens reveal how nature inspires inventions

The cactus greenhouse at the National Botanical Garden in Glasnevin, Dublin. The delicate red tips on miniature cacti in the glasshouse  indicate the presence of flavenoids, which act as UV filters to protect the plants from high UV levels. “These pigments are currently inspiring a new range of sunscreens,”  says botanist  Matthew Jebb

The cactus greenhouse at the National Botanical Garden in Glasnevin, Dublin. The delicate red tips on miniature cacti in the glasshouse indicate the presence of flavenoids, which act as UV filters to protect the plants from high UV levels. “These pigments are currently inspiring a new range of sunscreens,” says botanist Matthew Jebb

 

Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple computers, believed that the biggest innovations of the 21st century will be at the intersection between technology and biology. Down through the centuries humans have always been inspired by nature, but in this technological age the influence of the natural world is perhaps more ubiquitous that we imagine.

Architects, fashion designers, graphic artists and engineers are drawing inspiration from the evolutionary strategies used by plants, insects, birds, fish and mammals.

Biomimicry is the term used to describe a form of copying of natural processes either by other plant or animal species or by humans. Materials such as Velcro would arguably never have been invented without close up inspection of the mechanisms plants use to protect themselves from predators, extreme weather conditions and otherwise inhospitable environments.

Matthew Jebb, botanist and director of the National Botanic Gardens, recently pointed out some examples of biomimicry on special tours of these enchanting gardens in Glasnevin, Dublin. Held in collaboration with the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, the tours focused both on how plants mimic other plant species to protect themselves and how inventions – from sunscreens to land-to-air missiles – have been inspired by the natural world.

“The botanical world is full of examples of technological innovation,” says Jebb.

The premise of biomimicry is that nature has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with. Animals, plants, and microbes are consummate engineers and designers.

Hypodermic needles

Aspects of the natural world have inspired things as large as wind turbines and as small as hypodermic needles. “A Canadian company has patented turbine blades with humpy edges similar to the humpback whales. The benefit of these is that the turbine blade will start turning in lower wind conditions,” says Jebb.

The inspiration for a less painful type of hypodermic needle comes from the mosquito’s mouth (proboscis) which is made up of several thin needles each of which pierces the skin and extracts blood.

Velcro was inspired by the prickly balls or burrs of the burdock plant. Many of us will find these burrs more of an irritant than an inspiration as we remove them from socks, trousers or dogs after a countryside walk, but Swiss engineer George de Mestral discovered how their microscopic hoops attached themselves to loops in our clothing.

“Dupont invented the new artificial fibre of nylon at the same time, which allowed Velcro to be made. It has since become a fastener for everything from astronauts’ suits to children’s shoes, to diving equipment,” says Jebb.

Another biomimicry invention is how swimmers’ bodysuits have been modelled on the skin of a shark – smooth on one side and rough on the other which improves movement through the water. The shark’s skin has also inspired materials used on the hulls of ships for ease of movement through water.

Drawing our attention to the delicate red tips on miniature cacti in the National Botanic Gardens, Jebb says this colour indicates the presence of flavenoids which act as UV filters to protect the plants from high UV levels. “These pigments are currently inspiring a new range of sunscreens,” he says.

Studying the nanostructure of some plants has also led to some striking discoveries such as the so-called cloud seeding of rainfall in drought areas. Some plants in arid conditions have tiny hairs which emit silver iodine which attracts water to form droplets. Put very simply, when this chemical is sent up into the atmosphere it attracts the water, which will then fall as rain.

Exterior paint range

Plants that repel water have been used to inspire paints that will in turn repel water from their surface. The waxy leaves of the lotus flower, for example, have inspired an exterior paint range to minimise the contact area for water and dirt.

However, not all biomimicry results in benevolent inventions. Land-to-air missiles have been inspired by how a dragonfly hunts a wasp. “The dragonfly stays in exactly the same spot of the surrounding landscape so it’s background position never alters and the wasp has no idea that it is being reached by the dragonfly,” says Jebb.

Jebb explains how some plants use biomimicry to deter predators or to reproduce. The art of camouflage is one of the most obvious yet ingenious ways that octopuses, lizards and cuttlefish use to avoid capture.

But there are other more subtle strategies used to deter predators, such as how one flower species develops on its stems tiny red lumps, similar to butterfly eggs, to deter butterflies from laying eggs on it.

“Butterflies are predators of passion flowers because caterpillars will eat them [when they emerge from the eggs] but if butterflies see these egg-like bumps, they will assume another butterfly has already laid its eggs there and move on.”

Another example of nature mimicking itself is how some grass-like sedges produce seeds that have the smell of animal dung. “Dung beetles which lay eggs in animal dung are then deceived by them and bury their eggs – thus dispersing the seeds for re-growth,” says Jebb.

WHAT EXACTLY IS BIOMIMICRY?

Biomimicry is a form of copying (bio-mimicking) of processes or mechanisms in nature. The term is most often used to describe how architectural or engineering works have drawn inspiration from nature in their design and/or structure. However, biomimicry also happens between plant and animal species and involves camouflage or subterfuge as a means of survival.

You can develop your awareness of biomimicry through sharp observation of nature and man-made structures. Over time you will become aware of parallels or repeated patterns or shapes on buildings that have clearly come from nature. To understand biomimicry within the natural world itself might require more study. Joanna Crispell, European project researcher at the Science Gallery in Dublin, suggests close observation as a good starting point. “When you begin to question why things are the way they are, you will begin to understand natural selection. Take, for example, a butterfly whose patterns have eyes on them to scare off birds or consider how a lizard camouflages itself on a tree or a fish on the bottom of the sea to scare off predators.”

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