Clever Animals Inspire Lookers – And Engineers

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Posted on December 16, 2009 in Amazing Facts, Awards, Biology, Biomimetics, Birds, Marine Biology, Physical Science, Physics, Terrestrial Zoology

Incredible animals provide endless delights with their antics.  Even microorganisms are capable of amazing feats.  Sometimes these living things inspire inventors, too.

  1. Coconut octopus:  Tool use was supposed to be a late marker of primate intelligence as chimpanzees were evolving upward to manhood.  That’s so 1890.  Now that we know crows can use tools (05/26/2009), why not octopi?  Sure enough, PhysOrg, Science Daily and Live Science all reported on a “lucky accident” of finding “tool use in an invertebrate.”  Based on the paper in Current Biology,1 Live Science explained, “The veined octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus) apparently can stack discarded coconut shell halves just as one might pile bowls, sits atop them, makes its eight arms rigid like stilts, and then moves the entire heap across the seafloor.  These soft-bodied creatures perform this ungainly ‘stilt walking’ to use the hard shells for shelter later when needed.”
        Marine biologist Julian Finn “never laughed so hard underwater” upon observing the trick.  New Scientist included a video; so did National Geographic, which said the discoverers were “blown away” when they saw it.  “Tool use, once thought to be a uniquely human behavior, is seen as a sign of considerable mental sophistication among nonhuman animals, ”NG said.  The article quoted a chimpanzee expert commenting, “Even chimps do not use natural materials to create shelters over their heads.”  This octopus is making good use of its sophisticated robotic arms (02/09/2005, brain (10/25/2009) and complex eyes (10/16/2006, bullet 2).  Live Science followed up with a list of 10 animals that use tools.  Only half of them are primates; two are non-mammals.
  2. Hummingbird robots:  Who isn’t fascinated with hummingbirds hovering around the backyard feeder?  Scientists at University of Buffalo are studying “hummingbirds flight to develop self-propelled surveillance devices,” reported PhysOrg.  Hummingbird wings develop 3-D vortices that provide optimal lift.  Scientists interested in designing small robotic flyers that can negotiate caves, tunnels and tight places are taking their cues from the world’s smallest birds.  “One solution being explored is the design of tiny, flying surveillance devices called micro-air vehicles that are bio-inspired, based on lessons drawn from the behavior of insects and birds.
  3. Batty feet:  Scientists thought some bats used suction to cling to wet leaves.  Nope; Science Daily reported that the sucker-footed bats don’t use suction.  “Instead, they use wet adhesion, secreting a fluid, possibly sweat, that enables the pads on the bats’ wrists and ankles to attach to surfaces.”  The report on PhysOrg includes a video of the bat clinging to glass.
  4. Microfuel and micro-art:  Even single-celled organisms have their own tricks of technology.  Energy is, of course, a matter of great concern these days. reported on the latest attempts to use algae for biofuel.  And New Scientist posted a gallery of artistic patterns produced by microbes (some with human help).  Image No. 7 is sure to give you a double-take.  And say: if bacteria are so clever, why not just use them instead of imitating them?  PhysOrg reported about scientists at Argonne National Laboratory who are harnessing microbes to turn nanoscopic gears.  This is easier than building nanomachines from scratch:

    There exists a wide gap between man-made hard materials and living tissues; biological materials, unlike steel or plastics, are “alive.”  Biomaterials, such as live skin or tissue, consume energy of the nutrients to self-repair and adapt to their environment,” [Igor] Aronson said.  “Our discovery demonstrates how microscopic swimming agents, such as bacteria or man-made nanorobots, in combination with hard materials can constitute a ‘smart material’ which can dynamically alter its microstructures, repair damage, or power microdevices.”

    Hopefully PETA will not complain about making them into galley slaves.  See also Live Science.

  5. All that glitters:  Photonic crystals, the geometric arrangements of nanoscopic surfaces that play tricks with light, are still a hot topic in physics and biomimetics.  PhysOrg reported about work at the Weizmann Institute of Science who are studying “Sparkly Spiders and Photonic Fish.”  A variety of unrelated creatures use guanine molecules to create the tiny patterns that amplify some wavelengths and cancel out others.  The result is a reflective surface brighter than what pigments could produce: “These fish and spiders are able to make guanine crystals of very specific size and orientation to achieve the reflectivity they require.”

        How did these optical secrets emerge in such different species as arthropods, fish and birds?  The leader of the Israeli group remarked, “It is astonishing how through evolution, fish and silver-colored spiders have independently succeeded in achieving light-reflecting structures with similar efficiencies, although differences in mechanism is apparent.”  Another team member who spoke of the “clever solutions that emerged in the course of evolution” said, “It is very surprising that fish and spiders, pertaining to completely different taxonomic groups, independently acquired through evolution the ability to generate mirror-like reflections on their skin by depositing guanine crystals.  This suggests that the solution must be quite efficient and it is, therefore, extremely promising for the materials scientists to try and understand the structural principles of these photonic crystals working as (colored) mirrors.”

1.  Finn, Tregenza and Norman, “Defensive tool use in a coconut-carrying octopus,” Current Biology, Volume 19, Issue 23, R1069-R1070, 15 December 2009, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.10.052.

Ahem, you Israeli idolaters: Darwinism has just been falsified, not confirmed.  What’s astonishing is that you would trade in a solid foundation for an idol with feet of clay.  Look to the Rock from which you were hewn.
    How often do the evolutionists start chanting their worship rituals into otherwise stimulating discussions about biological wonders?  It will be so good when we can get science back to observation.  Meanwhile, all of us can look forward to cool gadgets and inventions coming from the intelligent-design science of biomimetics. In the tank, fish are glistenin’
In the lab, folks are whistlin’;
A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight,
Copyin’ a living wonderland. Gone away’s Mr. Charlie,
Here to stay – not so gnarly –
Intelli-design, the trend of ’09,
Copyin’ a living wonderland. In the hangar we can build a robot,
And pretend that it’s a hummingbird;
They’ll say “Follow Darwin!” we’ll say “No, not!
Design by evolution is absurd.” Later on, we’ll conspire
As we dream, zoo-inspired,
To build unafraid, with plans that God made,
Copyin’ a living wonderland.

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