Solutions to global challenges are all around us

Explore how biomimicry is shaping sustainable design and innovation in a variety of fields.

Learning from humpback whales how to create efficient wind power


Like a school bus pirouetting under water, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) – 40-50 feet long and weighing nearly 80,000 pounds – swims in circles tight enough to produce nets of bubbles only 5 feet across while corralling and catching krill, its shrimp-like prey. It turns out that the whale’s surprising dexterity is due mainly to its flippers, which have large, irregular looking bumps called tubercles across their leading edges.


Whereas sheets of water flowing over smooth flippers break up into myriad turbulent vortices as they cross the flipper, sheets of water passing through a humpback’s tubercles maintain even channels of fast-moving water, allowing humpbacks to keep their “grip” on the water at sharper angles and turn tighter corners, even at low speeds.

Wind tunnel tests of model humpback fins with and without tubercles have demonstrated the aerodynamic improvements tubercles make, such as an 8% improvement in lift and 32% reduction in drag, as well as allowing for a 40% increase in angle of attack over smooth flippers before stalling. A company called WhalePower is applying the lessons learned from humpback whales to the design of wind turbines to increase their efficiency, while this natural technology also has enormous potential to improve the safety and performance of airplanes, fans, and more.

Learning from termites how to create sustainable buildings


We generally think of termites as destroying buildings, not helping design them. But the Eastgate Building, an office complex in Harare, Zimbabwe, has an internal climate control system originally inspired by the structure of termite mounds. Further research is revealing more about the relationship between mound structure and internal temperature, and could influence additional building designs as our understanding grows.


The operation of buildings represents 40% of all the energy used by humanity, so learning how to design them to be more sustainable is vitally important. Architect Mick Pearce collaborated with engineers at Arup Associates to design Eastgate, which uses 90% percent less energy for ventilation than conventional buildings its size, and has already saved the building owners over $3.5 million dollars in air conditioning costs.

Learning from kingfishers how to break through boundaries


The Shinkansen Bullet Train was the fastest train in the world, traveling 200 miles per hour. The problem? Noise. Air pressure changes produced large thunder claps every time the train emerged from a tunnel, causing residents one-quarter a mile away to complain.


Eiji Nakatsu, the Shinkansen 500 train’s chief engineer and an avid bird-watcher, asked himself, “Is there something in Nature that travels quickly and smoothly between two very different mediums?” Modeling the front-end of the train after the beak of kingfishers, which dive from the air into bodies of water with very little splash to catch fish, resulted not only in a quieter train, but 15% less electricity use even while the train travels 10% faster.

Learning from prairies how to grow food in resilient ways


Take a look at any natural ecosystem, such as a prairie, and you will see a remarkable system of food production: productive, resilient, self-enriching, and ultimately sustainable.


The modern agricultural practices of humankind are also enormously productive, but only in the short term: the irrigation, fertilizer, and pesticide inputs upon which modern food crops depend both deplete and pollute increasingly rare water and soil resources.

The Land Institute has been working successfully to revolutionize the conceptual foundations of modern agriculture by using natural prairies as a model: they have been demonstrating that using deep-rooted plants which survive year-to-year (perennials) in agricultural systems which mimic stable natural ecosystems – rather than the weedy crops common to many modern agricultural systems – can produce equivalent yields of grain and maintain and even improve the water and soil resources upon which all future agriculture depends.

Learning from mosquitos to create “a nicer needle”


Have you ever noticed a mosquito bite (or two or three) that seemingly appeared out of nowhere? It turns out that the tip of the mosquito’s mouth is composed of several moving parts that work into skin with the minimum of fuss–and the minimum of pain.


Materials researchers and engineers at Kansai University in Japan saw amazing potential in the structure of the mosquito’s mouth. They used sophisticated engineering techniques that can carve out structures on the nanometer scale. The result of this blend of materials science and biology was a needle that penetrates like a mosquito, using pressure to stabilize and painlessly glide into skin. Tests proved it worked flawlessly.

The efficient drill of the wood-boring wasp’s ovipositor (an egg-laying spike) works on the same basis. Two toothed blades ratchet a central drill deeper and deeper into the wood. Because of the efficiency of this design, no motor is needed–just the delicate force the wasp exerts. This goal of guided, smooth penetration is exactly what neurosurgeons need in their tools.

Researchers at Imperial College and Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK have applied engineering techniques similar to those of their colleagues at Kansai, achieving similar results. They showed that a neuroprobe tipped with this biomimetic design required the least amount of force to move. The less force a neurosurgeon can use, the more they can be certain to leave your brain undamaged, thus preserving your memories of cult 80’s movies.

Written by Tom Benson

Learning from dolphins how to send signals underwater


Tsunami waves dozens of feet high when they reach shore may only be tens of centimeters high as they travel through the deep ocean. In order to reliably detect them and warn people before they reach land, sensitive pressure sensors must be located underneath passing waves in waters as deep as 6000 meters.


The data must then be transmitted up to a buoy at the ocean’s surface, where it is relayed to a satellite for distribution to an early warning center.Transmitting data through miles of water has proven difficult, however: sound waves, while unique in being able to travel long distances through water, reverberate and destructively interfere with one another as they travel, compromising the accuracy of information. Unless, that is, you are a dolphin.

Dolphins are able to recognize the calls of specific individuals (“signature whistles”) up to 25 kilometers away, demonstrating their ability to communicate and process sound information accurately despite the challenging medium of water. By employing several frequencies in each transmission, dolphins have found a way to cope with the sound scattering behavior of their high frequency, rapid transmissions, and still get their message reliably heard. Emulating dolphins’ unique frequency-modulating acoustics, a company called EvoLogics has developed a high-performance underwater modem for data transmission, which is currently employed in the tsunami early warning system throughout the Indian Ocean.

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We believe that the widespread adoption of nature-inspired solutions will catalyze a new era in design and business that benefits both people and the planet. Let’s make the act of asking nature’s advice a normal part of everyday inventing. We hope you will join us.
Chameleon image via Shutterstock.

Energy Photo: ©Whalepower Corporation

Transportation Photo: RaymondChen, Flickr cc by-nc-nd

Agriculture Photo: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Flickr cc by-nd

Medicine Photos: Ramon Portellano, Flickr cc by 2.0Noodle snacks, Wikimedia commons, GNU free documentation license

Communication: Photo: Steve Dunleavy, Flickr cc by-nc-nd

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