Updated: May 4
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
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!