April 4, 2013 | David F. Coppedge

Of Hagfish, Geckos and Dragonflies

Some of the most unlikely creatures are making headlines because of their potential for advancing technology.

Hagfish clothing:  Yuck! Hagfish, marine creatures without jaws, look like something out of a horror movie.  When attacked, they disgorge gobs of sticky slime from glands on the sides of their bodies.  You can see the goop in a photo on the BBC News, with its surprising headline, “Hagfish slime: The clothing of the future?”  Strange as it seems, Canadian researchers see wealth creation in the slime.  When its fibers get stretched out, they become soft and silky, like lycra or nylon, but renewable.  “Scientists believe hagfish slime or similar proteins could be turned into tights or breathable athletic wear, or even bullet-proof vests.”  Other amazing facts: a four-foot hagfish can contain hundreds of kilometers of slime threads.  The silky threads bear resemblance to spider silk, even though the creatures are unrelated.  A hagfish fossil said to be 330 million years old already had the slime-making technology.

Wet gecko adhesion:  Previous biomimetics entries (8/27/02, 12/06/06, 8/16/12) have described gecko toes’ amazing adhesive properties.  Now, according to National Geographic, the next challenge is understanding how the toes continue to adhere when wet—even underwater (cf. 10/18/10).  Researchers at the University of Akron, publishing in PNAS, are taking up the challenge.  It’s all theory at this stage, but they feel, “Our findings provide insight into how geckos may function in wet environments and also have significant implications for the development of a synthetic gecko mimic that retains adhesion in water.”  A press release from the university described how they harnessed geckos to tease out the secrets of their clingy wet feet.

Dragonfly copter:  Festo, the company that developed the SmartBird flying robot that resembles a seagull (see 3/28/11), now has a robotic four-wing helicopter called the BionicOpterthat resembles a dragonfly (see press release with video clip).  It’s lightweight, highly integrated, and has 13 degrees of freedom for complex flight maneuvers.  Substantially larger than the insect, it is operated by a wireless remote control.  Festo claims it has “mastered the highly complex flight characteristics of the dragonfly,” but theirs cannot yet lay eggs and hatch babies.  “Just like its model in nature, this ultralight flying object can fly in all directions, hover in mid-air and glide without beating its wings.”

Speaking of dragonflies, they are becoming popular subjects for wildlife watchers, Live Science says.  A blog post from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service described how these insects (neither dragons nor flies) are garnering a “swelling fan base” –

You might call dragonflies the stunt pilors [sic] of the insect world. They wear flashy colors, dart at speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, boast ancestors that predate dinosaurs … and they even mate in mid-air.

Dragonflies are harmless to humans and are also conveniently active in the daytime, making them attractive subjects for watching, with their jewel-like wings and bright colors.  “Dragonfly festivals are popping up across the country and a crop of new field guides are making the rounds around American towns and cities,” the blog said.  National wildlife refuges, like 4 listed in the blog, are excellent places for viewing them.  More interesting facts: dragonflies have almost 360° vision, they keep mosquitoes at bay, and they are indicators of clean water.

Biomimetic Briefs: From ear to smartphone app (Medical Xpress); from jellyfish to seafloor mapper (Live Science); from squid beak to medical implants (PhysOrg).

What’s not to love about the biomimetics revolution?  It’s turning people’s attention back to the wonderful designs in nature; it’s promising advances in technology to improve our lives; and it’s 100% Darwin-free.  Turn your kid onto dragonflies.  Take a nature walk where they are likely to be found.  Teachable moment: explain to him or her that if something works, it isn’t by accident.  Numerous technical constraints have to be satisfied for flight.  When the flight is superb, as with dragonflies, you know the technical design is even more superb.  Then wow the kids with the fact that some fossil dragonflies had wingspans over two feet!


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