How ZooLab’s Animals Have Changed the World!

It comes as no surprise to hear that animals play a central role in our society. Whether by

pollinating crops, providing us with meat, giving us companionship or strengthening natural

ecosystems - they are essential to our way of life.

Going beyond simply giving us food and comfort, animals have also played an additional -but perhaps less appreciated - role in shaping human culture. By taking note of the way their

anatomy and behaviour has evolved in response to their natural environment, scientists and

engineers have long used nature as inspiration to solve our own technological problems.

Known in modern times as the process of ‘Biomimicry’, it has given us everything from the

aerodynamic shape of the Japanese bullet train (a kingfisher’s beak) to the stickiness of

Velcro (the pointy hooks on burr-seeds) to the anti-bacterial film used to coat the hulls of

U.S. Navy ships (shark skin).

Countless species have provided biomimetic insight, including many members of the ZooLab team! Inspired by ZooLab’s very own ‘Biomimetics & Amazing Adaptations’ workshop, available for Key Stage 3 & 4 , let us take a look at some of the ways our animal colleagues have shaped the world around us, or how they might continue to do so in the future.


There’s typically little love lost between people and cockroaches. Their habit of enjoying

warm, stable environments with lots of food – environments in ample supply in the form of

our own homes – combined with the fact they are basically impossible to get rid of once they

arrive, sets us on track for conflict. But ironically, some of the very things that make

cockroaches such tiresome pests might one day save lives.

Cockroaches are insects, meaning that rather than having an internal skeleton like us they

have an external exoskeleton, similar to a shell. Their exoskeleton helps them infiltrate our

homes: cockroaches can squeeze through cracks one tenth of an inch and withstand

pressure up to 900 times their own bodyweight. What’s more, the bugs are able to move at

nearly full speed even when squished through a gap a quarter of an inch wide. To achieve

this, they are able to completely re-orientate their limbs and employ their leg spines to push

against the floor.

By looking at the way cockroaches employ different parts of their bodies to move so

effectively, scientists designed a robot called CRAM. CRAM’s articulated back plates make it

strong, while its specialised legs allow it to move quickly and effectively even when crushed

down to half its resting size. If put into action, a swarm of these robots could transform our

search-and-rescue operations when responding to disasters such as earthquakes and

tornadoes by providing an easy way to safely transverse the resultant rubble.


One of the biggest concerns for any mechanical engineer is how to manage the impact of

friction. While some friction is essential to the basic operation of many machines – for

example, during braking or transferring energy between gears – excess friction can lead to

the needless loss of energy as well as increasing wear, ultimately risking breakdown.

Some engineers think they have found a solution to their puzzle by observing the way that

snakes use friction to move so effortlessly across loose materials like gravel and sand, all

without legs! To stop themselves from picking up cuts and bruises, many snakes use a scale

pattern on their bellies, where the scales overlap both horizontally and vertically. By using a

laser, the engineers were able to mimic this scale pattern on an 8mm steel bolt, finding that

the pattern managed to reduce friction by a factor of 3 when compared to the unmodified

bolt, while simultaneously reducing machine wear. Don’t expect the effects of these

innovations to be limited to the industrial world. Such technology could one day impact the

design of everything from prosthetic limbs to the phones in our pockets!


The dyes we use to colour our clothes and furniture can be problematic. Not only do they

often fade and transfer over time with exposure to the elements, they can also act as a

harmful pollutant. To tackle the problem, it turns out that once again, nature might offer a

solution in an unlikely place.

Rather than pigment-based colouration, many organisms use structural colouration to make

themselves intimidating or attractive. Here, the colourful appearance is generated from

microstructures, such as tiny scales or hairs, which interact with light to produce the desired

effect. Structural colours don’t fade or produce any major pollution, meaning they could

represent an environmentally sustainable alternative for fashion and design.

One of the main reasons structural colours aren’t so commonly used already is because they

are typically affected by something called iridescence, where the colour of something

changes based on which angle you look from. This might work out well for a bird or a

butterfly, but not so much for a pair of boots! However, one particularly creepy (but no less

beautiful) animal has found a way to overcome this: the Gooty Sapphire Ornamental

tarantula’s (Poecilotheria metallica) fantastic blue hairs are the same from wherever you

stand, thanks to tiny flower-shaped nanostructures across each hair, a character thought to

help them find mates. By artificially recreating this pattern, scientists have been able to craft

structures with identical colour properties. This technology can be theoretically expanded

across the light spectrum with ease, priming these tarantulas as a boon for the future of



Ever wondered how surgeons are able to see inside people’s bodies during keyhole

operations? The answer is rather crude: they use small light-bearing cameras, combined

with some carbon dioxide gas pumped inside to increase the space to work in. This can be

difficult and complicated but potentially not forever, should we turn to nature.

In this instance, it was by observing the near-magical climbing abilities of tree frogs that

provided the innovative spark. A key problem in building materials designed to stick to things is what happens when the surface becomes wet. This can be problematic for Velcro or glue, but not so for tree-frogs. Tree frogs have ‘hexagonal patterned channels’ on their feet which transform their toes into tiny suction cups. These work by providing a direction for the

passage of water off the toe pad, creating adhesion even on a wet surface. In the past, these

channels have provided inspiration for tire manufacturers, making aquaplane-resistant all-

weather tires. Here, engineers at the University of Leeds mimicked this design to craft a

robot capable of moving across the slippery abdominal wall, even when upside-down! When

small enough, these remote-controlled roamers should be able to fit through medical

incisions and guide the surgeon from the inside, providing high-tech resolution whilst

ensuring the safety and comfort of the patients too.


The famed slow-yet-steadiness of the tortoise is not the only lesson we can learn from these

graceful, gentle reptiles. In a final ironic twist, it seems that they might hold the key to

improving our performance on the ski slopes!

The problem? Be both able to maintain ski integrity when cruising around tight corners

without breaking, while also remaining flexible enough to navigate any further bends. The

tortoise’s possible solution lies in the property of their shells to flex as the animal takes in air

during breathing, but to become highly rigid when subjected to a large amount of force, as

would be expected during a predator attack or fall. This is possible due to a natural polymer

that separates and holds together the turtle’s shell plates (called ‘scutes’).

The engineering team mimicked the tortoise’s adaptation in their skis by inserting specially

designed aluminium plates within the ski’s body (the scutes) connected by rubber (the

polymer). This bestows the plates with exactly the properties the engineers were looking for:

making the ski more durable during bends while making it flexible upon emergence. While

the tortoise may be slow and steady, its biology is nothing of the sort!

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