July 21, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Creatures Worth Knowing and Imitating

Studies of animals and cells reveal designs in nature we can appreciate and imitate.

Cell membranes are made of thousands of fatty acid molecules, but they create a secure barrier between inside and outside. Scientists at UC San Diego have imitated that with synthetic membranes that grow like living cells, says Science Daily.

Chameleon eyes don’t always work independently, New Scientist says. Experiments show that sometimes they work in tandem for stereo; other times they give the lizards two mono images.

By keeping one eye on a target, and pulling the other one over to match the first eye’s gaze, they would then shoot out their tongue. This suggests that a chameleon’s brain can coordinate its eyes to help them decide what to focus on, even though they move independently.

It’s not the only trick that chameleons are capable of. They can also rapidly change colour by rearranging tiny crystals in their skin that act like smart mirrors. They also seem to fine-tune their colour to hide from specific predators.

Cockroaches completed an artificial obstacle course in 3 seconds, Live Science reports. The live insects performed much faster than the robots inspired by them, which kept getting stuck.

Octopus skin has inspired the world’s first full-color, flexible, skin-like display. PhysOrg shows an image produced by engineers at the University of Central Florida who were inspired by octopus and squid. Inspired by nature, “The research has major implications for existing electronics like televisions, computers and mobile devices that have displays considered thin by today’s standards but monstrously bulky in comparison.”

Bacteria-inspired catalysts are helping pave the way to “gas to liquid” technologies at the Technical University of Munich, PhysOrg reports.

Snake skin has inspired new materials that reduce friction by 40%, another PhysOrg story says. “The skin of many snakes and lizards has been studied by biologists and has long been known to provide friction reduction to the animal as it moves,” the article says. “It is also resistant to wear, particularly in environments that are dry and dusty or sandy.”

Deep-sea shrimp are inspiring advanced composite materials at Purdue University. Researchers are amazed, Science Daily says, at how the chitin exoskeleton of these creatures can survive the scalding temperatures at deep sea vents.

Seahorse tails have a square cross-section. Why is that? It turns out this gives the flexible tail a better grip, Science Magazine says. Figuring out why this works so well “may help engineers to develop future seahorse-inspired technologies that mimic the prehensile and armored functions of the natural appendage for a variety of applications in robotics, defense systems, or biomedicine.” Another article on this in Science Magazine explains “when it’s hip to be square.”

Bird robots built by the European Space Agency, are getting better, PhysOrg reports. Called Robird for short, the artificial creature is designed to mimic the predator of birds living around airports, to scare them away from flying into jet engines.

Water striders are bugs that walk on water. How they do it was recently figured out by Chinese researchers publishing in PNAS. A PhysOrg summary includes a video showing how water droplets on tiny hairs on the bugs’ legs automatically move as a function of the hair shape shape. The droplets collect at a point then explode away after reaching a critical size. This keeps the leg dry (super-hydrophobic) as it contacts the water. “Materials scientists study biology at nanoscale [sic] in order to incorporate mechanical solutions to problems that have already been resolved by evolution,” the article claims, giving credit to blind chance. “This biomimicry is evident in much recent technology, including Velcro material inspired by Alpine seeds clinging to dog fur, materials with self-healing capabilities, and synthetic melanin films inspired by bird feathers.”

Spider silk is a perennial favorite for biomimetics engineers. PhysOrg discusses how researchers at Northwestern University are still trying to understand its basic properties.

Amazing FactsA spider’s web is one of the most intricate constructions in nature, but its precious silk has more than one use. Silk threads can be used as draglines, guidelines, anchors, pheromonal trails, nest lining, or even food. And each use requires a slightly different type of silk, optimized for its function.

“Each type of silk has similar proteins, but they are synthesized differently,” said Sinan Keten, assistant professor of mechanical and civil engineering at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering. “Then the spider knows how fast to reel the silk to get different properties. Nature is smart. It can tailor a structure to get different mechanical properties.”

Plants, too: Lest we leave out plant designs, we point out a paper in PNAS about progress in mimicking photosynthesis. The paper believes that redesigning photosynthesis for human needs can help to “sustainably meet global food and bioenergy demand.”

Design is everywhere. Design leads to fruitful science. This is why it is so irritating to hear atheists repeat the lie that intelligent design is not science, because nobody does research, makes models, makes predictions or uses the scientific method. The opposite is true. ID is the foundation for scientific research, but evolution is about imagination and storytelling. Let this list (and years of reports about biomimetics) prove it to the world.


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