Biomimicry, also called biomimetics, is when people draw inspiration from nature to design items and solve problems. Plant, fungi, and animal species evolved features and behaviors over vast periods of time to overcome challenges they face in their habitats. Engineers may mimic these features and behaviors from nature to improve their own designs.
Tree frog toes and grippy tire tread
Did you know that tree frog toes are helping to inspire designs for car tires? Tree frog toes have grippy pads. If you could look closely at these pads, you would see a pattern of deep, hexagon-shaped grooves. The grooved pattern helps tree frogs stick to the damp surface of trees. By studying the toes of tree frogs, scientists and engineers are learning to design better tread patterns for car tires to improve traction on damp roads!
Owls/Hummingbird wings and quiet flight
Owls have specialized noise-dampening feathers on the fronts of their wings so they can fly silently and sneak up on prey. Hummingbirds also have similar noise-dampening feathers to keep the sound to a minimum as they beat their wings dozens of times per second! Studying the wings of these birds helped engineers design wings for quieter airplanes.
Burs and Velcro
Velcro’s hooks mimic the way that burs stick to the fur of passing animals (or the leg of your hiking pants!). The soft side of the Velcro is like the animal fur, and the rigid side is like the hooks on the bur. Burs evolved as a way for plants to disperse their seeds. There is a seed inside of each bur. By attaching seeds to animals, the plants can reach new habitats, rather than all growing next to the parent plant.
Humpback whales and wind turbines
Humpback whale fins helped inspire the design of wind turbine blades. A whale’s unique fin shape is great for increasing lift and decreasing drag. This shape helps the whale glide through the water, and it helps wind turbines spin to generate renewable energy!
Spider webs and bird safety glass
Spiders build their webs so that small insects will accidently fly into the webs and become trapped in the sticky threads. But spiders don’t want larger flying animals like birds to run into and destroy the webs they painstakingly build. To avoid this, some spiders make silk with an ultraviolet coating. The ultraviolet colors are highly visible to birds, but not to many other species. This allows birds to see the web before they inadvertently fly into it and destroy it. A window glass company was inspired by these spiders to create glass windows with a UV-reflective pattern throughout. While not visible to humans, the reflective pattern lets birds know there’s something in their path before they collide into the window and injure themselves.
Flying squirrels, sugar gliders, and wingsuits
Wingsuits sometimes used by daredevils in extreme sports like skydiving and base jumping mimic the skin flaps that allow flying squirrels and sugar gliders to sail through the air from tree to tree!
Biomimicry Activity Ideas For Kids
Here are a few activity ideas for teaching students about biomimicry!
- Case Study: have each student research in-depth one particular case of biomimicry. What animal(s) are being mimicked? What traits are being mimicked? How are humans using these traits? What products or systems did it help create?
- DIY Biomimicry: provide each student with blank paper and have them brainstorm their own idea for an item or system they could create using biomimicry. Encourage them to start by listing a few favorite animals, and jotting down some of the characteristics/behaviors of each animal. How could those characteristics/behaviors can benefit humans? Once they have their ideas, students can draw or write about their design.
- Tree Frogs and Biomimicry: Consider downloading my Tree Frogs STEM Unit for kids! It’s a complete unit designed to build math, engineering, science skills, with activities themed around tree-frogs! It includes some fun origami engineering activities as well as information on tree frog biomimicry!
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References and Further Reading
- Vanderbilt, T. (2012). How Biomimicry is Inspiring Human Innovation. Smithsonian Magazine. Available: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-biomimicry-is-inspiring-human-innovation-17924040/
- Phillips, E. (n.d.). BIOMIMICRY IS REAL WORLD INSPIRATION. Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Available: https://carnegiemnh.org/biomimicry-is-real-world-inspiration/
- Schwartz, D. (2012). Wing-Suits: Humans Surpassing Animals in Flight. Boston University. Available: https://blogs.bu.edu/bioaerial2012/2012/09/26/wing-suits-humans-surpassing-animals-in-flight/
- Green Team Blog (2014). A Better Building: Biomimicry Glass Working with Nature to Reduce Bird-Window Collisions. University of Utah. S.J. Quinney College of Law. Available: https://law.utah.edu/a-better-building-biomimicry-glass-working-with-nature-to-reduce-bird-window-collisions/
- University of Akron News (2018). With the help of frogs, graduate student wins award for tire tread research. University of Communications and Marketing. Available: https://www.uakron.edu/im/news/with-the-help-of-frogs-graduate-student-wins-award-for-tire-tread-research