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Archive for the ‘Biomimicry’ Category

Shape Shifter

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 7, 2013

 

(Photo: Cally Harper)

(Photo: Cally Harper)

Tongues can do delightful and astonishing things. I am thinking of the way a frog fires its sticky tongue halfway across the universe to snag a passing insect (see below). Or how an alligator snapping turtle wriggles its tongue like a worm as a dinner invitation to fish. And now the Pallas’s long-tongued bat (Glossophaga sorcina) joins this elite club of astonishing animal tongue artists.

These bats, found from Argentina to northern Mexico, and sometimes into Arizona and New Mexico, have the fastest metabolism ever recorded in a mammal, says a 2007 study in the journal Nature. They burn half their body fat each day, and have to make up for it at night by consuming as much as 150 percent of their body weight in nectar from flowers. And of course, they have to do it on the wing. According to a study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, the secret to its success is a remarkable ability to change the shape of its tongue into a hemodynamic—or blood-swollen—“nectar mop.”

When lead author Cally Harper, a doctoral candidate in biomechanics at Brown University in Rhode Island, began her study, specialists already knew that bats of this species have an unusual fringe of hair-like structures around the tip of the tongue.  They assumed these were useful for collecting nectar—but passively, like raking icing off a cake using your fingernails. Biologists also knew that these bats have enlarged blood vessels in their tongues. But they didn’t know what to make of them. Harper had a hunch that the two features might be connected, especially since …  Read the full article here.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biomimicry, Cool Tools, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Why Eyespots? The Better to Scare Spiders

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 13, 2013

Baby blues on an Antheraea polyphemus

Baby blues on an Antheraea polyphemus (Photo: Howard Ensign Evans, Colorado State Univ.)

Eye  spots on animals have always intrigued and occasionally alarmed me.  Like most naturalists, I always assumed that they had evolved on butterflies and other small animals to scare off birds, snakes, and other big, nasty predators.

Now it turns out that spiders, those underrated predators, may also drive natural selection of this trait.  Here’s the press release:

Mar. 12, 2013 — Since the time of Darwin 150 years ago, researchers have believed large predators like birds mainly influenced the evolution of coloration in butterflies. In the first behavioral study to directly test the defense mechanism of hairstreak butterflies, University of Florida lepidopterist Andrei Sourakov found that the appearance of a false head — a wing pattern found on hundreds of hairstreak butterflies worldwide — was 100 percent effective against attacks from a jumping spider. The research published online March 8 in the Journal of Natural History shows small arthropods, rather than large vertebrate predators, may influence butterfly evolution.

“Everything we observe out there has been blamed on birds: aposematic coloration, mimicry and various defensive patterns like eyespots,” said study author Andrei Sourakov, a collection coordinator at the Florida Museum of Natural History’s McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity on the UF campus. “It’s a big step in general and a big leap of faith to realize that a creature as tiny as a jumping spider, whose brain and life span are really small compared to birds, can actually be partially responsible for Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biodiversity, Biomimicry, Kill or Be Killed | Leave a Comment »

A Microbe to Keel-Haul Troubled Sinuses

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 19, 2013

Here’s a way to understand the stuffiness and thick nasal congestion of sinusitis: Imagine you are sailing some hulk of a freighter through the Sargasso Sea enveloped in a fog as thick as a pillow.

So the latest news from biomimicry fits just right.

Researchers who originally studied a marine microbe with the idea of using it to help strip crud off the hulls of ships have  instead discovered that they can use it to clean out troubled sinuses.

Here’s the press release from Newcastle University:

Feb. 18, 2013 — A team of scientists and surgeons from Newcastle are developing a new nasal spray from a marine microbe to help clear chronic sinusitis.

They are using an enzyme isolated from a marine bacterium Bacillus licheniformis found on the surface of seaweed, which the scientists at Newcastle University were originally researching for the purpose of cleaning the hulls of ships.

Publishing  recently in PLOS ONE, they describe how in many cases of chronic sinusitis the bacteria form a biofilm, a slimy protective barrier which can protect them from Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Moth Says Pimp My Ride, Drives Robot to Sex

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 6, 2013

This one really needs a photo, or maybe a cartoon.   It’s like a 17-year-old boy with the keys to his Dad’s Mustang out trying to pick up girls.    Here’s the report from ScienceDaily:

 A small, two-wheeled robot has been driven by a male silkmoth to track down the sex pheromone usually given off by a female mate.The robot has been used to characterize the silkmoth’s tracking behaviors and it is hoped that these can be applied to other autonomous robots so they can track down smells, and the subsequent sources, of environmental spills and leaks when fitted with highly sensitive sensors.

The results have been published 6 February, in IOP Publishing’s journal Bioinspiration and Biomimetics.

The male silkmoth was chosen as the ‘driver’ of the robot due to its characteristic ‘mating dance’ when reacting to the sex pheromone of the female. Once the male is stimulated Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry | 1 Comment »

Fashionable Slime

Posted by Richard Conniff on November 29, 2012

Sooner or later we all have to eat our words, and today it’s my slimy turn.  Here’s part of what I wrote about slime eels, also known as hagfish, in my 1996 book Spineless Wonders:  Strange Tales of the Invertebrate World:

Among other habits that have endeared them to seafarers, slime eels like to enter dead or dying bodies on the ocean bot­tom by way of mouth, gills, or anus, and gobble up everything except bones and skin, which remain intact. Fish immobilized in gill nets are particularly susceptible. In one study in the Gulf of Maine, slime eels gutted 3 percent to 5 percent of the catch. J. B. Heiser, a biologist at Cornell University’s Shoals Marine Laboratory in Maine, describes what’s left of the fish as “a bag of bones, literally . .. like it had been sucked dry by a high- powered vacuum cleaner.”

Slime eels are often still inside the fish when the bloated gill net spills its contents onto the fisherman’s deck, and Heiser, who has opened up several specimens, says the hags ensconced in their victim are typically well-fed and at ease, “smiling, slimy, usually snoring—gently.” In one case, the record, a single cod contained 123 slime eels, in a pink, wriggling mass.

It is a disheartening sight for fishermen, touching some source of horror beyond mere economic loss. One fisheries ex­pert has attributed this horror to the slime itself: “Being worth­less . . . the hag is an unmitigated nuisance, and a particularly loathsome one owing to its habit of pouring out slime from its mucous sacs in quantity out of all proportion to its small size. One hag, it is said, can easily fill a two-gallon bucket, nor do we think this any exaggeration.”

But, oh, how wrong, how terribly narrow-minded, of both me and my nameless expert, because hagfish slime is apparently destined to become the stuff of high fashion.  ScienceDaily reports:

Nylon, Kevlar and other synthetic fabrics: Step aside. If new scientific research pans out, people may be sporting shirts, blouses and other garments made from fibers modeled after those in the icky, super-strong slime from Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry, Cool Tools | Leave a Comment »

An Eyeful of Natural Selection

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 1, 2012

(Photo selection from Rainforest Journeys)

You are looking at the hind end  [see correction below] of various rainforest caterpillars.  But if you thought for just a moment that you were looking at snakes or lizards, well, so do a lot of predators.  And that’s the point.

These false eye spots give defenseless caterpillars a moment of protection, startling birds, for instance, into sudden retreat.  The caterpillars that don’t have that startle effect get eaten up.  Thus natural selection has made the trait widespread in the caterpillar world.

Posted in Biodiversity, Biomimicry, Cool Tools, Evolution, Fear & Courage | 2 Comments »

Biomimicry and Bullet Trains

Posted by Richard Conniff on October 28, 2011

kingfisher

The BBC has a roundup of some of the ways the natural world is shaping industrial design:

For instance, a Canadian firm Whirlpower mimics humpback whale flippers and uses the principle on wind turbines and fans, reducing the drag and increasing the lift.

A paint company Lodafen applies the lotus effect, mimicking the shape of the bump on a lotus leaf.

Lotus leaves are self-cleaning – they have tiny bumps that help remove the dirt when it rains.

Lodafen uses the principle in architecture designs – and in Europe, there are more than 350,000 buildings that have this kind of paint.

The design of the fastest train in the world, Shinkansen bullet train in Japan, was inspired by the beak of a kingfisher.

“And of course the high-speed train, Shinkansen bullet train in Japan – it’s the fastest train in the world, traveling 200 miles per hour.

“Instead of having a rounded front, it has something that looks like a beak of a kingfisher, a bird that goes from air to water, one density of medium to another,” she adds.

You can read the full article here.

And digging through the debris in my office, I just came across another roundup from an airline magazine, Hemispheres, back in January.  The writer is Tiffany Meyers:

When Kaichang Li, a science professor at Oregon State University, discovered that the blue mussel’s sticky fibers resemble soy flour’s proteins, he developed a nontoxic, soy-flour- based adhesive, called PureBond Technology. For Columbia Forest Products, manufacturer of hardwood plywood and veneer, it was the end of a competitive scramble to find an alternative to the pricey, carcinogenic industry standard: urea- formaldehyde-based glue.

Nature-inspired design might even correct our overindulgences. The intemperate use of antibiotics has given rise to drug-resistant bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a “superbug” that causes difficult-to-treat, drug-resistant infections and beleaguers hospitals. In 2005, MRSA killed more than 19,000 people in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control. The cure? Sharks. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Biomimicry | Leave a Comment »

How a Seashell Helped Deaf People Hear

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 16, 2010

I’ve written often here about the remarkable ways shellfish have altered the course of human history.  So I was intrigued to see a recent interview about how a shell inspired the invention of cochlear implants.  It appears in the Aussie magazine Cosmos, where I am an occasional contributor.  Here’s an excerpt:

During one Melbourne summer in 1977, he took his young children to the beach to escape the heat. While they were playing in the shallows, Clark noticed a seashell lying on the ground – and that its helical structure was a crude replica of the human cochlea.

Inspiration hit. He pulled up some grass blades and experimented with teasing them into the shell’s opening. Owing to their flexible tips and stiff bases, the blades slid smoothly into the tightening spiral. It revealed a simple solution to a complex problem.

Rushing back to the lab, he confirmed that wire electrodes following the same design as a grass blade would solve his problem. Designed with progressive stiffness, the electrodes could be made to travel the length of the cochlea, all the way to the nerve cells that code for speech.

This design is now the basis of the hugely successful cochlear implant, a small surgical implant that simulates hearing for the deaf by stimulation of the auditory nerve to reproduce speech. Today, more than 200,000 people have received cochlear implants in more than 100 countries.

Here are some other interesting examples of human interactions with shells.   They’re excerpts from a story I wrote for Smithsonian Magazine about shell madness, parts one, two, three, four, and five.  Better yet, check out chapter four, “Mad About Shells,” in my new book The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth (W.W. Norton, November 1).

Posted in Biomimicry | Leave a Comment »

 
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