Once upon a time, the Wilbur and Orville Wright were hard at work inventing the airplane. Many of their fellow aviation pioneers imagined that controls for an airplane could and should work just like those in a carriage or ship. An aircraft, they imagined, should remain level and steady in the air while a rudder or some other structure directed its flight. This sounds strange to us now with the benefit of hindsight, but those early engineers were looking at the modes of transportation already mastered by man and taking their inspiration from that. The Wright brothers looked instead to the world of birds; specifically to how they flex their wingtips and bank—like you would on a bicycle—to enter a turn. This observation leads to “wing-warping” as a control mechanism. Though the technology has changed a bit over the years, the fact is that whether it’s in a small Cessna 152 or on the Boeing 787, every modern airplane shares that graceful, banking turn we’re so used to today.
What the Wright brothers did when they took inspiration from the birds was something we would now call biomimicry. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel and developing a completely novel method of achieving flight, the brothers studied a naturally occurring predecessor for the technology they wished to develop. In the last decade or so, biomimicry has become an increasingly popular and structured philosophy centered around this simple idea: take inspiration from nature.
The driving logic of the biomimicry movement is quite compelling. The natural world is the oldest and most longest-running scientific experiment on the planet. When the Wright brothers became interested in aviation, humans had been tinkering with the idea for a handful of decades. Birds, bats, and insects, on the other hand, had had it mastered for millennia. Whereas the brothers had rugged gliders and hot air balloons to look to in the library of human aerial accomplishments, the biological world offered up millions of species and a few millennia worth of proven mechanics and techniques.
There is a broader argument motivating the biomimicry movement as well; one which revolves around the idea of efficiency. The efficiency found in the natural world is orders of magnitude beyond that of even our most stellar designs. Consider how much fuel it takes for one of our jet planes to cross the ocean verses the energy consumed by a frigate bird making the same trip. Certainly, we can do things faster and on a larger scale than your average living thing, but we accomplish these feats at the cost of being horrendously wasteful. In order to accomplish what the frigate bird accomplishes with a room-temperature metabolism and an irregular food supply, we have to drill for crude oil and chemically refine it in massive quantities. Our most efficient turbines burn this refined fuel far less efficiently and with more detrimental and persistent waste than the digestive tract and muscular metabolism of that bird. And the bird’s fuel is unrefined fish!
Here’s a better example of the natural world versus the human one. Mollusks—like snails or abalone—are able to produce protective shells with a very low energy cost that are durable, non-toxic, and at the end of the day, imminently bio-degradable. The human analogs of this biotechnology typically involve plastics, which are far more energy intensive to produce and so non-biodegradable that their buildup in our oceans now impacts the food web at every level. The philosophy of biomimicry argues that to achieve a more sustainable global ecosystem, we need processes and policies that are derivative of, or at the very least, inspired by those that occur naturally.
This is where biomimicry begins to butt up against conservation. The world of conservation is, at its core, the work of building a sustainable world. On a fundamental level, biological processes tend to be inherently sustainable. Thanks to the complexities of the food web, all the waste material our bodies can’t make use of are excreted and capitalized upon by other organisms. This “one man’s trash” style system eventually comes full circle in the food chain we learn about in elementary school.
Our waste (and eventually ourselves) become food for the decomposers, the bacteria, fungi, and worms. What they breakdown is put to use by the plants, which are eaten by the animals (including us), which are in their turn, food for the decomposers again. Ingenuity that takes its cues from these sustainable natural processes tends not to result in toxic waste, non-biodegradable detritus, and harmful pollution.
Now let’s take this abstract system into the world of the practical. There are several projects currently underway that exemplify the promise of biomimicry in design and engineering.
The classic story in the world of biomimicry comes from the world of Japanese bullet trains. The high-speed trains would compress air in front of them as they rocketed into tunnels. The result of this compression would be a deafening sonic-boom-like explosion at the far end of the tunnel as that air decompressed. Engineers tasked with resolving the issue wound up modeling a new nose for the train inspired by the king fisher bird, which dives into the water with nary a splash. The new nose did solve the booming problem. As a side-effect of adopting a design a few million years in the making, the trains also experienced a significant increase in fuel-efficiency and their top speed. This result garnered a great deal of attention and got a lot of people interested in the prospects of biomimicry.
Another promising prospect in development comes out of the study of whale flippers. If you’ve ever seen footage of humpback or gray whales, you may have noted how agile they are for their bulk. As it turns out, the scalloped leading edges on their flippers are the keys to this mobility. Those bumpy edges are an ingenious trick of anatomy that drastically reduces the force of drag on the flipper. This has implications for aviation and wind energy as well. An experimental wind farm was recently set up using turbine generators with scalloped blades. Not only were these turbines able to turn and generate power at much lower wind speeds, but with winds at 17 miles per hour, were able to produce nearly twice as much electricity as their non-scalloped contemporaries.
The really cool thing about this concept is that it isn’t limited to industrial labs and well-funded research facilities. Observing and learning from the natural world can be an everyday adventure, after all, the Wright brother’s insight into aircraft wings came from watching birds in their own backyard. In fact, here at Safari West, we’re doing a little biomimicry of our own.
Between our flamingo lagoons, the various ponds in the aviaries, and the koi-filled moat that surrounds lemur island, we have several very special water features on the property. Like nearly all man-made water features, they require attention and filtration. Traditional pond-upkeep involves bulky mechanical filters, hazardous chemicals, and a lot of work. Filters become fouled and have to be replaced regularly and the chemicals designed to kill the algae and pathogens in a pond can also be harmful to the desirable plants and animals. Why is this system so complex and inefficient? Because most ponds comprise only one component of an ecosystem and we’re left trying to make up for those missing parts with machinery and medicines. If we can find ways to incorporate more of the naturally occurring ecosystem services, we can improve efficiency, reduce chemical use and waste, and make the whole thing more beautiful to boot.
A feature the Safari West ponds and lagoons I’ve mentioned have in common are flowing streams and at least two pools each. Water is pumped into an upstream pool and then flows down a stream-bed to a second pool. From there it is pumped back up to the top. When the water reaches the top, it burbles up through a gravel bed in which trillions of microscopic bacteria make their homes. These bacteria thrive on the waste of birds, fish, and decaying vegetation. They are the first stage of our biological filter and unlike manmade filters, they are microscopic and invisible.
Now, these bacteria also produce waste, much of which is immediately consumed by other species of bacteria. At the end of the day, the final waste product of the various species is a phenomenal fertilizer. In an environment of standing water, this fertilizing food source is capitalized on by algae, which results in murky water and mats of green on every exposed surface. Oftentimes, the default solution to this problem is chemical, which kills the algae. The dead algae fall out of the water column and become food for those very same waste producing bacteria. So in a way, the chemicals used to kill the algae simply wind up turning that algae into food for more algae. The pond clears briefly and then, once the bacteria have had their meal, gets even murkier than it was before, creating an oftentimes escalating cycle of chemical intervention and frustration.
Another solution is to run all that bacteria filtered water down a meandering stream filled with plants. These plants compete with the algae for the same resource and thereby reduce the algal load and clarify the water. The end result is a beautiful water garden that takes advantage of natural processes to cycle waste through the system.
We currently have four such biofilters up and running at Safari West and the largest and newest of them is currently clearing the water at lemur island. If you’ve been to Safari West before, you’ve no doubt seen the massive koi who live in that circular lagoon. Come by again and you’ll be stunned. Although the biofilter is new and the plants and bacteria are still growing to fill their respective niches, the water has already cleared to the point you can see nearly to the bottom. The numerous red and gold koi school en masse around the lagoon, their supple shapes crisp and visible. Upstream, in the cascade coming from the freshly constructed upper lagoon, leggy water plants stretch toward the sun while their roots dip into the nutrient rich waters. It’s beautiful and growing lusher by the day. All of this accomplished, not with some novel chemical process, but simply by taking a page from nature’s book. Come visit us and see for yourself. The natural world is a beautiful thing, especially when you get out of the way and let it do what it already knows how to do best.