What engineers can learn from animals

The mantis shrimp

Genghis Khan bathed in sherbet ice cream.

This is how The Oatmeal described the violent AND beautiful mantis shrimp in their comic: “Why the mantis shrimp is my new favorite animal.

These little guys, along with 20 other animals, will serve as inspiration for a team of engineers and researchers –– led by UC Riverside’s David Kisailus.  Of particular interest is the mantis shrimp’s clubs (or “murder sticks” as they’re referred to in the comic), which it uses to kill prey and break apart oysters, crabs, and mollusks.

Working with biologists and chemists, these engineers will study their biological systems and cellular structures to see if they can use those insights to develop stronger, tougher materials. Natural structures like shells, beaks and antlers are particularly interesting because they are composed of relatively simple materials (aka not industrial strength), yet display incredible strength and mechanical performance.

This multidisciplinary research will highlight the value in biologically-inspired materials allowing the next generation of materials development to take advantage of what nature has known for millennia.

12 thoughts on “What engineers can learn from animals”

  1. I think it is so important that we learn from animals in this way. Humankind seems to have developed a very anthropocentric- the notion that humans are the sole bearers of inherent value – view of the world. This human arrogance is rather bizarre, particularly in light of the fact that 99.9% of life on this planet has not included us (Kalton, 2000). Moreover, this notion is incredibly tragic, as it has resulted in a limited perspective. This is as our presumption of superiority has left us assuming that humans are the only species with the capacity to add value. This notion has meant we often overlook other species’ potential to add value, albeit inadvertently.

    It is for this reason that I find news such as this so refreshing, and any previously implied disillusionment is quickly quieted. For want of sounding like a tree-hugging naturalist, it is this type of value-sharing between species that should be encouraged in the future. Humankind would be all the better for it.

    Kalton, M. (2000). Green Spirituality: Horizontal Transcendence. [Accessed 4 March 2014].

  2. A very recent discovery (only last year) led to the discovery of functional gears in the jumping legs of the insect Issus coleoptratus, a type of nymph called a planthopper (www.livescience.com, 2013). The gears are located directly between the legs and prevent asynchronous extension during a leap (thus preventing the insect from spinning). I always find it encouraging to see human inventions also used in nature – i think it tells us that we’re moving in the right direction.

    Lewis, T. (2013). Creature with Interlocking Gears on Legs Discovered. Available at: http://www.livescience.com/39577-insects-with-leg-gears-discovered.html (accessed 26 April 2014)

  3. Nature has developed incomprehensible complex systems that provide ingenuity in the way it functions and corresponds with the environment. This can clearly be seen from the way living organisms have adapted genetically, both genotypically and phenotypically, to survive in their respective conditions. It is encouraging to see that mankind is seeking inspiration from these systems to provide more effective solutions in the advancement of technology. Hopefully, this will emphasise that we are not independent from our environment, and that its not just a platform that allows us to survive, but also allows us to thrive. Maybe then, we will show more respect and responsibility towards nature.

  4. Biomimicry – literally translated to mean the imitation of life – is a field of study dedicated to applying mechanisms found in nature to technology. It is astounding what we can accomplish when we draw inspiration from nature rather than fight it and force our own engineering into it. For example, this article brought to mind the Shinkansen Train in Japan. Eiji Nakatsu re-engineered the bullet train using aerodynamic principles which he obtained from studying the flight and silent hunting of kingfishers. The shape of these birds’ beaks allow for noiseless, minimum disturbance entry into the water, and when the shape was applied to the train it operated more quietly, its speed increased by one tenth and it ran 15% more energy efficiently. There are countless more examples which show that the blueprints for our designs already exist in nature – we simply have to look. For far too long humanity has believed itself superior to the natural world around it, possessing greater intelligence and thus some kind of right to exploit the Earth and its resources. Fields such as biomimicry show that nature has an innate intelligence and awe-inspiring complexity; this emphasises the importance of preserving the environment and the many ecosystems and organisms present within it.

  5. Biomimicry is an excellent way to improve human technology. Through looking at nature, humans can improve technology. Researchers are now looking for different ways to improve the efficiency of airplanes. One of the ways that was identified to improve the efficiency of airplanes, was by looking to birds as inspiration. Researchers noted that certain species of birds can fly up to 70 percent further by flying in a V-shape. Researchers are now trying to implement this technique on airplanes so that the airplanes can fly with more efficiency and save more fuel. This will have a positive impact on the environment, because less fuel will be used and less pollution will be produced by the plane engines. The economy will also benefit from this, because less fuel will be used by the planes, so more money will be saved. Are there other ways that biomimicry can have a positive impact on the environment as a whole?

  6. Please watch the insert “Why the mantis shrimp is my new favourite animal”!! It is extremely funny and provides an excellent insight in what a mantis shrimp is. One can clearly see why engineers and scientists are so intrigued by this small creature.

    An all-time favourite book of mine, ” Wild Technology” , written by Kingfisher, discusses how nature has inspired humans to create some of our modern technology. This book as well as the above article are but but a few examples which involves ideas derived from nature to enhance and simplify our daily lives.

    U14071852 is correct in his analysis of the human’s arrogance and the fact that we often neglect to acknowledge other creature’s importance in this world. u13205766 mirrors my own hope that mankind will show more respect and responsibility towards nature. We need to cultivate a responsibility towards nature by means of a comical approach for the younger generation as was so brilliantly done in the above link’s comic so that they may become more interested in research.

    $7.5 million has been allocated by the Department of Defence in America for this research program . The main purpose of this project is to gain insight in the mantis shrimp composion in order to create more powerful military equipment. In my opinion the research would have been more meaningful if it was for example applied to obtain knowledge for creating stronger building material for houses in areas frequently affected by tornados.

  7. I agree with u14071852, us humans think too highly of our brain power and forget to look at the design of our bodies and that of nature. Why spend years trying to figure more efficient designs for planes, trains, buildings? When millions of years of brilliant, efficient, evolutionary design is staring us in the face?
    This blog show us this is the step in the right direction. Engineers have started to design buildings from that of a birds skull. “Skulls in general are extraordinary impact-resistant structures and extremely light at the same time as they protect the most important organs of an animal body and this performance and physical property can be applied in structure or architecture design,” says architect Andres Harris, who has studied animal bones – particularly bird skulls – extensively in a bid to design a highly efficient bio-inspired surface. View Harris’s blog “Biomimetic Architecture” for images and more information.

  8. It is truly remarkable if one thinks of the hundreds of possibilities for advancement in engineering which lies hidden beneath the grand designs of nature. An outstanding example of this is the intricate design of the spider web. A spider’s web, as harmless and unintimidating as it may seem (without the spider on it off course), won’t collapse even having several tears and being whipped around in hurricane-force winds. According to iol.co.za this strength is achieved by the interaction between the two types of strands the web is consisted of. The strands that spiral out from the centre of the web is elastic, wet and adhesive, which allows the spider to capture incognizant prey. Structural support is provided by the straight threads that radiate outwards. These strands are stiff and dry. The combination of the radial and spiral strands allows the web to limit puncture damage to only the spot where it occurs, saving the rest of the structure from despair, efficiently limiting energy output of repairing the web. This fascinating design Mother Nature has bestowed upon the fear-evoking yet humble spider is of great interest to engineers looking for shock-resistant structural designs.

  9. As soon as people find a field of study that interests and engulfs them, they tend to focus only on that. However it is beneficial to allow the brain to access different information in order to gain new perspectives in terms of problem solving. This is applicable to the field of engineering in relation to biology. We often disregard other fields of study, believing that the knowledge we have acquired is sufficient. But learning is a life-long experience and a wiser person is always one who is willing to learn new things. We do not realise it, but most man-made inventions are modeled on structures that we have observed in nature. We use concepts from nature all the time.
    Much of engineering is moving towards the natural sciences in terms of finding new ways to create natural and environmentally friendly and efficient materials. The claw structures of this mantis shrimp is particularly appealing because it is composed of simple biological compounds and experiments can be conducted easily.
    This article proves that we have a lot top learn from nature, particularly the biological mechanisms of animals.

  10. Engineering is an extension of nature’s designs. Organisms have had many millions of years to evolve into the effective systems they are today. You can see evolution as a tinkerer. The first thing that needs to be understood is that animals are very complex; therefore you cannot just perform biomimicry. You just need to copy what is necessary, you do not need to copy the whole ‘design’. There is a difference between nature and human technology. Nature’s technology remains small and flexible, whilst human technology is larger and less flexible IE more rigid. The movements of insects like the cockroach inspired the making of robots, such as RHex that will be used to go to unhospitable places such as Mars. These robots can manoeuvre over objects, because their movement is based on that of insects. This movement is like a pogo-stick. What makes animals so fascinating is that they can interact with the environment. Therefore the conclusion is that nature’s designs should be used to inspire us.

  11. Agreeable u13205766. There is still a lot to be learned from nature especially on the biochemical aspects of it. Transgenic animal research has offered and still does, new ideas on how to maximize genetic codes in animals. genes are harvested from one totally different organism and placed in another to gain specific qualities. for example Escherichia coli is a genetically modified insulin producing bacteria. in ather areas germ line stem cell-mediated methods are implemented opening a new era in transplants.

    however this field is complex and still needs extensive research. factors to consider can be in terms of safety and possible repecusions if all does not go as planned.

  12. Agreeable u13205766. There is still a lot to be learned from nature especially on the biochemical aspects of it. Transgenic animal research has offered and still does, new ideas on how to maximize genetic codes in animals. genes are harvested from one totally different organism and placed in another to gain specific qualities. for example Escherichia coli is a genetically modified insulin producing bacteria. in ather areas germ line stem cell-mediated methods are implemented opening a new era in transplants.

    however this field is complex and still needs extensive research. factors to consider can be in terms of safety and possible repercussions if all does not go as planned. also so people might consider ethical values first.

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