December 7, 2016 | David F. Coppedge

What Good Is a Hairball?

When you start looking for clues to good designs in nature, the results are everywhere.

Let’s play “What good is a …. ?” and find the surprising answers. Read the linked articles for explanations of how scientists got from question to answer.

Q: What good is a—

  1. Cat tongue with a hairball? A: Easy-to-clear hairbrush, medical cleaner for wounds. (Science Daily, Live Science)
  2. Coconut crab claw? A: Stronger machine gripper or crusher. (New Scientist)
  3. Owl feather? A: Quieter wind turbine, more efficient flight wing. (Science Daily)
  4. Poison dart frog? A: Better anesthetics, better understanding of how ion channels work. (
  5. Peacock tail or butterfly wing? A: Scratch-proof colored surfaces without pigment. (Science Daily)
  6. Platypus’s venomous spur? A: Improved treatment for diabetes. (Science Daily)
  7. Mussel shell and gecko foot? A: Waterproof glue, spiderman toy. (The Conversation)
  8. Cellulose protein? A: More effective carrier for food or fire retardants. (PNAS)
  9. Parrot with goggles? A: More accurate robotic drones. (Live Science, Science Daily)
  10. Bug eye? A: Brighter clothes and road signs. (Science Daily)
  11. Walking protein like kinesin? A: New way to detect flaws in soft materials. (
  12. Fish school? A: Coordinated information transmission. (Science Daily)
  13. Virus? A: Drug delivery system. (
  14. Leaf? A: More efficient solar panels. (New Scientist, Science Daily)
  15. Dog nose? A: Electronic bomb detector. (Science Daily)
  16. Tomato peel? A: Potential drugs. (
  17. Plant? A: “Five amazing ways plants have created new technologies.” (The Conversation)
  18. Plant sunscreen? A: More productive crops. (
  19. Sperm tail? A: Powered nanodevices. (Science Daily)
  20. Epithelial tissue? A: Scaffold for healing wounds. (PNAS)

Each of these projects first saw inspiration in how the plant, animal or cell does something. Then, it required detailed research into the mechanism the organism employs. Finally, researchers had to figure out ways to translate the mechanism into invention.

Update 12/08/16: What good is a bush baby? It’s a small primate native to Africa that is a superb jumper. The BBC News says that this animal has inspired a jumping robot that is higher and faster than any other robot that’s out there right now. Watch it at work in the embedded video clip. “”By combining biologically inspired design principles with improved engineering technology, matching the agile performance of animals may not be that far off,” the designer said. What does that tell you about the animals?

We thought of one more way that Biomimetics is good for science: it teaches humility. When the world’s greatest scientists have trouble understanding how a mussel makes underwater glue or a cat’s tongue cleans hair effectively, it’s hard to boast.

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