Impeller designed by Jay Harman of PaxScientific.com. The impeller’s design was inspired by “freezing a whirlpool”. Variations on the same natural algorithm are used by many organisms such as cala lilies as seen above, and sea shells.
Homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years, give or take. We’re well adapted to hunting and scavenging and socializing and getting by as humans. However, a lot of other living creatures can do very clever things better than us. Take flying for example. For millenia humans saw birds take to the air and longed to join them. After centuries of trial and error we finally learned their secret and soared like eagles. What else can we learn from the natural world that can help us do what other organisms have already mastered?
Using an adaptation from a living organism for our own use is known as biomimicry. Biomimicry inspired something else that you may use every day, Velcro. Inventor, George de Mestral, saw the burrs attached to his dog’s fur after a walk. He studied the burr bristles under a microscope and noticed that the little hooks on the end were snagging his dogs fur and his clothing. From this he developed a material with tiny hook-like structures that became the reusable fasteners that we know so well.
The pictures below show how the hook parts of a piece of Velcro are similar in shape to the hooks at the end of each organic burr bristle.
Janine Beyrus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, is considered the pioneer of the philosophy of asking nature the best way to do things. Her ideas have influenced scores of inventors, researchers, engineers, designers, and programmers. Here is her TED Talk from 2009 in which she convinces us how much nature has to teach us:
Janine Beyrus mentions asknature.org in her TED Talk. I hope you will go check it out and use it to get inspired to make, solve, or improve something the way nature intended.
Polished sphere of amber with a beetle inclusion. (source)
Amber is fossilized tree resin from prehistoric conifer trees. The slow and sticky resin oozed out of a tree when it suffered damage and protected it like a gooey bandage. Eventually this resin would harden and shed off the tree where it would collect as part of the debris and sediment of the ancient forest floor. Over eons of time the resin matured chemically and fossilized into the hard plastic-like material that we know today as amber.
Fossilized tree resin from hundreds of millions of years ago is exciting, yes, but it’s what has been found in amber that is so much more riveting. Trapped within these organic stones you can often glimpse perfectly preserved organisms from the prehistoric past. Some of these unlucky deep time travelers include insects, spiders and their webs, seeds, pine needles, flowers, frogs, and even a lizard. These ensnared creatures and plant matter–known as inclusions–have been dated up to about 150 million years ago. Most of these organisms are now extinct but can be studied and classified by comparing them with current known species or known fossils.
Rock fossil of a feathered dinosaur (source)
Many of the most intriguing amber fossils are found in Canada and include a few types of feathers and protofeathers. Scientists collected and studied 11 samples of amber containing feathers and found that they were seeing a range of plumage that showed a development from primitive protofeathers to more complex feathers like those found on modern birds. They found that some of these feathers are similar to the ones seen in rock fossil impressions of feathered dinosaurs. The more advanced feathers may have come from early birds. If you like reading about dinosaurs, amber, or prehistoric life, you will enjoy reading the original scientific paper by the scientists who are studying these fossil feathers in amber.
Possible dinosaur protofeathers. (source)
Above are just two stages of the known stages of feather evolution. On the left are protofeathers which are very primitive and look like very fine hairs or filaments. Researchers have nicknamed these simple protofeathers “dinofuzz”. They are even studying the pigments–color-producing particles–on these feathers. Those pigments from feathers have been found in rock fossils as well, as seen in this video from researchers at Yale University.
If you have ever seen or heard about the movie or book “Jurassic Park” you may have heard that it might be possible to take DNA from an organism that has been preserved in amber. Unfortunately, at this time, that seems unlikely. DNA breaks apart quickly once an organism dies. However, amber is a fantastic preservative and if we are going to find ancient DNA somewhere it is most likely to come from just such an ideal source. Some scientists have had promising results in extracting bits of DNA from amber; however, it is a difficult and tricky process and other scientists have had trouble getting the same results. It could be possible to get a snippet or two of DNA but the DNA of a whole organism from many millions of years ago might be impossible at least for the foreseeable future.
We promised you adventures in science. This is a good one if you can make it through the first few minutes, because it is the most disgusting but fascinating science show we have ever seen. If you don’t wimp out, you’ll get to see something amazing and rare—the inside of a dead sperm whale.
Before watching “Sperm Whale” _Inside Nature’s Giants_ make sure you have an empty stomach and are sitting down.
Mwah-ha-ha-ha. Let the torture begin.
That is Professor Joy Reidenberg slipping around in that whale’s guts and cutting its eyeball apart for us to see. She is a comparative anatomist which is someone who studies and compares the structure or parts of different animals. In the video, she uses her knowledge of comparative anatomy to safely dissect and study this poor whale adding to our knowledge of whales. She is amazing.
“Sperm Whale” _Inside Nature’s Giants_ is another great BBC science program. It has also been broadcast on the Discovery Channel in the U.S. Look for it and the rest of the programs from the _Inside Nature’s Giants_ series featuring elephant, python, and giant squid.
A breach and wave of the flipper to Ed Yong who recommended the show @edyong209 on Twitter.