Biomimicry: A Better Idea
Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.
Recently, I met an engineer in the aisles of Barnes & Noble, (yes, a brick and mortar bookstore.) I literally backed into him while looking for a Birds of Puerto Rico guidebook in preparation for an upcoming trip. He was looking at books on engineering in the same aisle, albeit on the opposite side. After awkward apologies, he asks if I like nature. “I do,” I answer and the conversation eventually progresses to how engineers are looking to nature for ideas on design. Hence my introduction to biomimicry.
While the word first appeared in 1982, I like the definition author and scientist Janine Benvus gives in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. It is…”a new science that studies nature’s models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems.” Benvus looks to Nature as a “Model, Measure, and Mentor.” Sustainability is the objective. The inspiration for the creation of the hook and loop fastener you know as Velcro came from observing the way a burr sticks to a dog’s fur coat.
A Horse is a Horse
Back to the man in the bookstore. Being an automotive engineer, he is interested in locomotion. He gives me an example of a horse. A creature with massive body weight, it can move very fast on four legs resembling sticks on clodhoppers. Horse leg bones would be too heavy if they were made only of dense bone. Scientists studying the structure of horse’s leg bones find that bone is not strictly rigid material. It is flexible. It is made of a combination of stiff and compliant materials, wedded together to form strong material, according to biomimicry.net. The internal structure of the bone is optimized for strength, yet lightweight thanks to a latticework of fibers managing both tensile and compressive forces.
Nature’s Shock Absorbers
Then there are the hooves. It is not only the material of which the hoof is made which is a marvel of engineering, it is also the design of the hoof itself and how it mechanically interacts with the rest of the horse, what a non-horse person such as myself would call the ankle, leg and body mass – an awesome application and design.
No Hoof, No Horse
“Horse hooves are among the most crack-resistant substances in the natural world, about twenty times tougher than bone,” says the Biomimicry Guild. Omega Fields, https://www.omegafields.com a company billing itself as “the world’s best flax based omega-3 supplements for horses, dogs, chickens, and goats” has a detailed explanation of the elegant design intrinsic to the structure of a horse’s hoof and leg. The following is my layperson’s version describing what happens when a horse’s hoof hits the ground:
- The hoof dissipates much of the initial pressure of the striking of the surface shock, while passing it up to —
- a cushiony part, which compresses, spreads out, absorbing much of what’s left of the original shock, providing support and passing the now-diminished shock to —
- cartilages cradling a bone suspended above the sole of the hoof; absorbing most of what’s left of the original shock, transferring the rest of the shock to another bone, which distributes what’s left of the original shock to horse’s body’s joints, tendons, and ligaments.
- Here’s a very cool part: During step 3, the sole of the hoof momentarily flattens, and the horse’s heels spread, allowing still further dispersal of the shock. In addition, some blood from within the hoof itself is temporarily “pumped” out of the foot by the horse’s weight suddenly being applied. But a moment later, that foot is up again, off the ground, and by thus removing the horse’s weight, the hoof is expanding – drawing blood back into itself!” And remember, there are four hooves, all built and working the same way, and there are millions of hoof shock dissipation events over the course of the horse’s life span. [Phew!]
Nature’s Bullet Bird
Many examples of biomimicry come from the design of animals and their body parts. The kingfisher is a bird with a specialized streamlined beak which allows it to dive very rapidly from air (low drag medium) into water (a high drag medium) with no splash. The wedge-shaped beak allows water to flow past and not to be pushed front wise away from it. The Japanese borrowed this design to the front end of their speed bullet trains to reduce the noise and vibration created when shooting into the openings of tunnels, moving from low drag air into high drag air.
Nature’s Drill Bit
Another favorite example is the woodpecker’s skull. (yes another bird- I confess a bias) With all the deep, rapid tapping and drilling these birds do, you’d think they’d get a headache. But no. They have shock absorbing technology which includes semi-elastic beaks, areas of “spongy bone” material behind their skulls and cerebrospinal fluid working together to absorb the mechanical shock and inhibit vibration.
And the Winner is…
Biomimicry speaks to my shamanic consciousness and sensibilities. The way of the shaman is to connect intimately with nature and all of creation. Nature creates designs so elegant, so efficient and so efficacious they are prize worthy if only we gave prizes to Nature. Look to creation. The research & development of nature is sublime. I daresay her time-honored models have been around for as long as Planet Earth has, possibly pre-dating the creation of our planet, existing in other places of the cosmos.
All is Alive
This Earth Day consider that Nature has a lot to teach us if we pay attention, ask and work with her. Yet let’s not forget the reciprocity of the relationship. It’s not all about the taking. While humans can create from the inspiration nature gives to help us work, let’s not forget to give back, to genuinely love and enjoy the natural world for what it is: A Gift from Creator/Creatress.