• Gary Raham

It isn’t cheating to copy Mother Nature

By R. Gary Raham


While cheating on tests is rarely a good thing, winning nature’s survival test should prove to be the exception. When it comes to R & D (research and development), nature has been testing the survival capabilities of all kinds of organisms for at least 3.8 billion years. We humans shouldn’t consider it cheating to borrow some of her best ideas to stay alive and healthy as a species for a long time to come.


Biologist Janine M. Benyus has been advocating this approach for decades now. Her Biomimicry Institute (www.biomimicry.org) offers annual prizes to interdisciplinary teams of university students and professionals who find nature-inspired ways to solve some of the problems that human growth and technology create.


Above: Biomimicry Illustration: R Gary Raham


Biologists use the term mimicry to describe the phenomenon of one organism trying to look like (mimic) something it’s not—usually to protect itself. While camping, for example, I’ve found caterpillars of geometrid moths that look exactly like aspen twigs. Their disguise is nearly perfect until they decide to move or set up their twig impersonation act inappropriately in the middle of a log. But mimicking nature means more than adopting clever disguises. It involves copying many of the ways nature has devised to solve serious problems like disposing of waste, recycling water and other resources, building durable structures, and much more.


The Swiss engineer, Georges de Mestrae, invented Velcro® after noticing that burdock plants used a clever design involving hooks and loops to fasten its burrs to the fur of de Mestrae’s dog, insuring the dispersal of the plant’s seeds. Now we use the burdock plant’s clever design to keep our shoes fastened and our pants from falling down.


Often, keeping one’s pants on has great merit, but solving climate change, air pollution, habitat destruction, and loss of fresh water seem like much more daunting problems—and they are.


Nevertheless, nature routinely keeps her systems in balance for eons. As Benyus has said, “The real survivors are the Earth inhabitants that have lived millions of years without consuming their ecological capital, the base from which all abundance flows.” Those are the kinds of tricks nature has devised and we humans must learn.


The 2020 Biomimicry Global Design Challenge Finalists (https://challenge.biomimicry.org/) demonstrate ingenious ways to use some of nature’s survival tricks to solve serious real world problems. Gardeners may be especially drawn to projects called nutriBarrier and Pranavayu.


NutriBarrier helps solve the problem of fertilizer runoff from agricultural lands that lead to algal blooms and dead zones in offshore waters. The group decided there must be some way to hold fertilizers near plants longer rather than allowing them to wash quickly downstream. Farmers could use fewer chemicals, and rivers would have more time to recycle toxic runoff. Ultimately, they drew inspiration from an unlikely mixture of frogs, acorns, hagfish, and the architecture of the DNA molecule.


Frogs, for example, beat their legs while mating to produce a cocoon of bubbles that protects their eggs. Squirrels bury acorns, not all of which are rediscovered, so they have time to germinate into oak trees. When threatened, hagfish release a repulsive gel that discourages predators. The architecture of the DNA double helix provides a model for compact storage. The group combined these elements in such a way that they engineered a double helical, nutrient-filled porous barrier around plants that allowed for time-released plant fertilization and significantly less runoff. (See biomimicry.org/solution/nutribarrier/)


The Pranavayu air filtration system designed by another group drew inspiration from floral stamens and spiderwebs. The group wanted to find a way to filter the air rickshaw drivers inhaled in Delhi, India where breathing the air is like smoking 50 cigarettes a day. They noted that electrostatic charges between pollen grains build up at the tip of stamens and on the slender legs of pollinators. To create a filter to trap air pollutants, they devised a multi-layered system consisting of charged, web-like meshes with sharply protruding structures to ensure a high charge at the apex and efficiently filter the air. (See: biomimicry.org/solution/pranavayu)


So go ahead, cheat a little bit on nature’s survival test if it means preserving our clever, though often self-destructive, species. Nature won’t mind if you look over her shoulder on the final exam. The plants and other creatures in your garden may be modeling just the techniques we need to thrive and prosper into the distant future—not to mention avoid wardrobe malfunctions of all kinds.

Gary Raham writes and illustrates both science fact and science fiction. Keep in touch with his work at www.rgaryraham.com.