When Science Copies Nature

They say that practice makes perfect, and with millions of years of evolution under her belt, Mother Nature exemplifies that old adage. The natural world is brimming with examples of extraordinary adaptations, some of them so incredible that they must be seen to be believed. Nature’s genius continually provides inspiration for science and technology, and the practice of copying natural mechanisms and reproducing them synthetically is so commonplace that the term “biomimicry” was coined to refer to it. Biomimicry, or biomimetics, literally translates as the mimicry of life, and it has proved a useful tool for product developers in a wide range of industries. Inspiration can come from an almost limitless supply of natural sources, with biomimetic inventions including velcro, which copies the sticky pads that allow geckos to climb smooth walls; and the Japanese Shinkansen bullet train, which borrowed its aerodynamic shape from the beak of a kingfisher. The marine world has also proved to be a goldmine of inspiration for new inventions, all of which seek to give humans some of the advantages bestowed upon other animals. Here are three examples of how ocean creatures have influenced the way we live.

Sharks

As befits the marine world’s apex predators, sharks possess many evolutionarily advantageous traits and characteristics. One such trait is their skin, made up of countless tiny, teeth-like structures known as dermal denticles. These denticles seamlessly overlap one another, and have tiny grooves that align with the flow of water past the shark’s body, making them masters of streamlined efficiency. This concept was the inspiration for a range of competitive swimsuits that reduced drag and therefore improved the user’s race times, and which proved so successful that they were banned after the 2008 Summer Olympics for giving competitors who wore them an unfair advantage.

Sharkskin has also inspired several other inventions, this time based on the inability of bacteria, algae and barnacles to attach to the skin’s rough surface. When researchers noticed that sharks remained free from such pests despite spending their whole lives in the water, they realized that if such a power could be harnessed, it could prove invaluable in increasing the efficiency of cargo ships and other ocean-going vessels. A film that reproduces a similar texture to the dermal denticles has now been developed for use on the hulls of ships to prevent them from fouling so easily, to reduce drag and to make them more fuel-efficient. The same concept has also been used to develop hospital surfaces, where the repellent nature of dermal-denticle technology helps to prevent the buildup of dangerous bacteria.

Humpback Whales

Like sharks, whales are magnificent examples of natural design. Some species are able to dive to depths of almost 9,850 feet/3,000 meters, while others can expand their mouths sufficiently to engulf a shoal of fish in its entirety. Product developers have found humpback whales’ irregular tubercles, which create a bumpy surface along the front edge of their large pectoral fins, most inspiring. According to a joint study conducted by scientists from Duke University, West Chester University and the U.S. Naval Academy, these tubercles considerably increase a humpback’s efficiency, helping to minimize drag by up to 32 percent. They also help to increase lift by a further 8 percent, perhaps explaining why humpbacks, as the only whale species to possess these pectoral tubercles, are also the most acrobatic of all their brethren despite averaging an astounding 79,000 pounds.

These observations have led to the use of tubercle technology in manmade products, ranging from industrial fans to surfboards. Renewable energy is perhaps the field in which the discovery has proved most valuable. By attaching mimicked nodules to wind-turbine blades, the turbines function with decreased noise and drag, with faster direction changes and with an increase in power output of up to 20 percent.

Peacock Mantis Shrimp

The amazing peacock mantis shrimp is surely one of nature’s most surreal creations, with its Technicolor appearance and a set of abilities that wouldn’t look out of place on a sci-fi super villain. Impressively for a creature that grows no bigger than 7 inches/18 centimeters, the peacock mantis is the inspiration for several advances in human technology. The first relates to its unique eyesight: whereas human eyes utilize three photoreceptors, peacock mantis shrimps have 16. They are also capable of detecting multispectral images, ultraviolet light, and circularly polarized light. This last ability in particular could influence the next generation of revolutionary hard drives and multimedia players, to which end scientists are currently trying to harness the mechanisms that enable the peacock mantis’ incredibly advanced eyesight.

The other peacock mantis trait currently inspiring biomimetic invention is its club, which it uses to strike and stun its prey. Despite its small size, the peacock mantis packs the most powerful punch in the animal kingdom — a blow from its club reaches speeds of over 50 miles per hour, and has an acceleration rate equivalent to that of a .22-caliber bullet. It is for this reason that this species is a problematic aquarium pet; the 1,500-Newton force generated from its club can shatter a glass tank. Incredibly, the peacock mantis’ club suffers no damage despite inflicting such powerful impacts approximately 50,000 times between molts and it’s this resilience that scientists are hoping to harness by copying the design of the club’s cell structure. If accomplished successfully, the mantis shrimp could be the inspiration for hi-tech car and airplane parts, and for military body armor that would not only be the strongest, but also the lightest yet invented.

There are many other instances of marine life influencing biomimetic products, including the ability of mussels to adhere to wet rock and the streamlined flight enabled by a manta ray’s wing structure. That cutting-edge science and technology so often looks to the ocean for inspiration is proof of how amazing the underwater world really is, and how lucky we as scuba divers are to be able to experience it firsthand.

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