April 5, 2006 | David F. Coppedge

Experimental Biologists Look to Animals for Inspiration

Whether insects, fish, birds or mammals, animals have a lot to teach scientists and engineers.  Here are some recent stories that begin to answer, “How do they do that?” with hopes that humans might be able to mimic their feats.

  • Hard sponges:  Aimee Cunningham in Science News (03/25/2006; 169:12, p. 184) described the astonishment Joanna Aizenberg (Bell Labs) felt about the Venus Flower Basket sponge   Not only is its silicate glass structure strong enough for a man to stand on, it is intricately woven with cross bridges and organic shock-absorbing glue – “the most perfect design I have ever seen.”  (See also 07/08/2005 and 03/01/2004 about its fiber optics.)
  • Tough beaks:  In the same Science News article, Cunningham told about Mark Meyers (UC San Diego) being impressed with the beaks of toucans in Brazil.  Toucans have the largest beak-to-body ratio of any bird; they use them to grip heavy fruit, which they skillfully toss into the air to gulp down.  “The beak must be rigid enough to resist bending and twisting forces, and yet this stiffness can’t come with great weight, or the bird couldn’t get off the ground,” Cunningham writes of Meyers’ findings.  “Indeed, despite its dominating size, the beak makes up only one-twentieth of the toucan’s body mass.”  Materials scientists are very interested in such substances found in sea sponges, seashells, oysters and bird beaks, because they are lightweight and resistant to fracture without sacrificing strength.
  • Weird tooth:  Science News (3/25/2006, 169:12, p. 186) also had more details about narwhals, the arctic whales with the big spiral tusks that apparently serve as environmental antennae (see 12/13/2005).  Susan Milius wrote about the difficulty Martin Nweeia (dentist at Harvard Medical School) had in studying the elusive animals.  Little is known about the life habits of these medium-size whales that spend much of their lives under the Arctic ice, but scientists are beginning to follow them with sensors embedded in their skin, which have detected them making record dives to 1,800 meters.  Though some researchers insist the tusks are sexually-selected structures for male prowess, Nweeia felt the 10 million tubules connecting to the nerves don’t make sense if the tusks are mere fishing spears or lances for dueling.  He said, “When you have something so exquisite, you don’t bring that on the battlefield.”
  • Bee Landing Gear:  According to EurekAlert, the Society for Experimental Biology found out why orchid bees let their feet dangle under them while flying.  The feet provide extra lift and prevent roll at high speeds.  This principle might help with the design of miniature flying machines for search and rescue operations.
  • Rabbit tricks:  A greyhound pursuing a rabbit might give up and call it a bad hare day.  The rabbit has better muscles for jumping and quick turns, says a report on EurekAlert.
  • Follow the ant home:  An ant may know the route better than a man with a map and compass.  Ants can remember landmarks, but also have a backup system, says a story from the Society for Experimental Biology reported on EurekAlert.  They have a “path integrator” that “allows them to create straight shortcuts back to the nest even when the outbound part of the forage run was very winding,” by constantly reassessing position with an internal compass and measure of distance traveled.  “Knowledge about path integration and landmark learning gained from our experiments with ants has already been incorporated in autonomous robots,” the article says.
  • Follow the ant under the bar:  Ants can do limbo, says another story on EurekAlert.  They can visually judge the height of a horizontal barrier and crawl under it without slowing down.  The ants can sense a barrier with either eyes or antennae.
  • Crow puzzle:  Rooks, a kind of crow, passed an intelligence test.  They were able to manipulate a piece of food through a tunnel that contained a trap door.  EurekAlert summarized a series of experiments reported in Current Biology1 that supported the idea these birds use sophisticated physical cognition to understand puzzles and how to solve them, unlike preprogrammed robots that merely make associations.
  • Hummingbird memory:  Another report in Current Biology2 last month found that hummingbirds never forget.  Experiments with controlled nectar sources showed that they could remember the location of eight rewards and update the information throughout the day.  They could also remember the timing of visits, so as to avoid revisiting empty flowers until they refilled.  “Not only is this the first time that this degree of timing ability has been shown in wild animals,” report Henderson et al., “but these hummingbirds also exhibit two of the fundamental aspects of episodic-like memory, the kind of memory for specific events often thought to be exclusive to humans.”
  • Avionics is for the birds:  Bird watching will never be the same.  Scientists can now attach miniature sensors and miniature 50g cameras to the bodies and wings of birds to learn about how they fly, says EurekAlert.  One group is doing this with eagles to figure out the function of their control systems.
  • Fly feet:  A stunning electron micrograph of a fly’s foot can be found on a story on EurekAlert.  Researchers are studying the elegant foot pads to figure out how flies can dance on the ceiling.  To a group presenting their findings at the Society for Experimental Biology today, fly feet provide “inspiration for mimicking locomotion of wall and ceiling walking machines, which use micropatterned polymer feet for generating adhesion.”
  • Stargazing lobster:  The UK is building a telescope for the International Space Station based on the design of the lobster eye, reported BBC News.  The Lobster All-Sky X-ray Monitor will mimic what lobsters do: utilize a “huge array of tiny channels that focus light by reflection, rather than by bending it through lenses found in human eyes,” giving it an extremely wide field of vision.  It has taken nearly 30 years for humans to perfect the optics involved.
  • The Bug Love:  Hate insects?  Think again.  News @ Nature says, “Next time you dismiss insects as mere creepy-crawlies, ponder for a while on what life would be like without them.  Our six-legged friends might be more valuable than you think – research estimates that they’re worth at least a staggering $57 billion to the US economy every year.”  From agriculture to birdwatching, insects are there to help keep our economy buzzing.  Beetles devour harmful waste.  Flies provide bait for fishermen.  Bees pollinate our crops.  Many species encourage biodiversity and provide essential food for many animals.  (Where mosquitos fit in, the article did not say.)

1Jackie Chappell, “Avian Cognition: Understanding Tool Use,” Current Biology, Volume 16, Issue 7, 4 April 2006, Pages R244-R245, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.03.019.
2Henderson et al., “Timing in Free-Living Rufous Hummingbirds, Selasphorus rufus,” Current Biology, Volume 16, Issue 5, 7 March 2006, Pages 512-515, doi:10.1016/j.cub.2006.01.054.

Most of these stories did not mention evolution, and in those that did, it was more an aftermarket gloss than a contribution to the scientific understanding.  A revolution in animal studies is underway – a revolution based on design principles.  The investigations here presuppose that there are elegant designs in nature that humans can try to understand.  The design principles observed are transferable to human engineering.  Darwinism, a minor Victorian religious sect, has nothing to offer the Information Age.  Think design.

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