September 28, 2017 | David F. Coppedge

Animals Teach Humans About Design

They may not be able to talk, but animals communicate graduate level information about physics, chemistry and intelligent design.

Reasons for tails. Scientists at University of California, Riverside decide to watch what animals do with their tails. In UCR Today, they learned some tricks of physics. Your dog, for instance, may seem just happy when it wags its tail, but animals actually get more mileage out of their walking and running; “the side-to-side motion may also help them take longer strides and move faster,” they found. By studying leopard geckos with and without tails, the researchers figured that lateral tail movements actually increase stride length.

Higham said the results demonstrate a role for tail undulations in geckos that is likely applicable to many terrestrial animals with tails.

“We know that tails have a number of important functions, such as fat storage in lizards and balance and stability in cats,” Higham said. “This research suggests another role for tails, which is in increasing step length and ultimately speed.”

Ant where it used to be. Ever watch the ant trails in the kitchen before rushing for the spray? It’s amazing that they keep their spacing just right. Three scientists at MIT are taking inspiration from ants to learn about density control for human designs of distributed populations. In a paper in PNAS, they find solutions to these complex algorithms everywhere:

Highly complex distributed algorithms are ubiquitous in nature: from the behavior of social insect colonies and bird flocks, to cellular differentiation in embryonic development, to neural information processing. In our research, we study biological computation theoretically, combining a scientific perspective, which seeks to better understand the systems being studied, with an engineering perspective, which takes inspiration from these systems to improve algorithm design. In this work, we focus on the problem of population density estimation in ant colonies, demonstrating that extremely simple algorithms, similar to those used by ants, solve the problem with strong theoretical guarantees and have a number of interesting computational applications.

Squid ink for dental health. Scientists at UC San Diego have improved on an old technique for diagnosing gum disease. Instead of using those pointed probes between teeth, use squid ink, Science Daily recommends.

By combining squid ink with light and ultrasound, a team led by engineers at the University of California San Diego has developed a new dental imaging method to examine a patient’s gums that is non-invasive, more comprehensive and more accurate than the state of the art…

Squid ink naturally contains melanin nanoparticles, which absorb light. During the oral rinse, the melanin nanoparticles get trapped in the pockets between the teeth and gums. When researchers shine a laser light onto the area, the squid ink heats up and quickly swells, creating pressure differences in the gum pockets that can be detected using ultrasound. This method enables researchers to create a full map of the pocket depth around each tooth — a significant improvement over the conventional method.

Beetle on its back: Click! Right side up. Imagine a Mars rover that tipped over on its back. Its functional life would be over: antenna down, wheels in the air, solar cells unable to get more energy. Wouldn’t it be nice to design a way for it to get right-side up again? Click beetles do just that. Science Daily says they are inspiring the design of self-righting robots. This is no idle project; it won international prizes:

The researchers presented their findings at Living Machines 2017: The 6th International Conference on Biomimetic and Biohybrid Systems at Stanford University, and later won second place in a student and faculty research competition at the international BIOMinnovate Challenge, in Paris, France — a research expo that showcases biologically-inspired design in engineering, medicine and architecture.

That’s a big clue that biomimetics is a hot topic around the world. How do the beetles perform this trick?

Amazing FactsThe beetles have a unique hinge-like mechanism between their heads and abdomens that makes a clicking sound when initiated and allows them to flip into the air and back onto their feet when they are knocked over, Alleyne said.

“Very little research had been performed on these beetles, and I thought this legless jumping mechanism would be a perfect candidate for further exploration in the field of bioinspiration,” said Alleyne, who teaches a bioinspiration design course with mechanical sciences and engineering professor, co-author and lead investigator Aimy Wissa.

The real teacher is the beetle. Wissa is the learner. “The group has already built several prototypes of a hinge-like, spring-loaded device that will eventually be incorporated into a robot, the researchers said.” What the team is learning provides feedback to biologists, who learn to appreciate the engineering in their little bugs.

PS: Spider Silk update. One icon of biomimetics is spider silk. Here is a case of human design trying to improve on natural design for human engineering needs. Science Daily says,

Natural spider silk has excellent mechanical properties. Researchers from the Graphene Flagship have found a way to boost the strength of spider’s silk using graphene-based materials, paving the way for a novel class of high-performance bionic composites….

“Humans have used silkworm silks widely for thousands of years, but recently research has focussed on spider silk, as it has promising mechanical properties. It is among the best spun polymer fibres in terms of tensile strength, ultimate strain, and especially toughness, even when compared to synthetic fibres such as Kevlar,” said Nicola Pugno, of the University of Trento.

The new work may represent the biggest change in biomaterials since humans learned to obtain silk from silkworms thousands of years ago.

What’s not to love in these biomimetics stories? Kids love them. Engineers love them. Creationists love them. Scientists love them. The only ones frowning are the Darwin Supremacists.

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