Nature has an incredible number of benefits—think of a time that you found solace in someplace wild. Or a time that you found yourself completely, utterly mesmerized by some odd creature. Perhaps your affinity for nature is more practical. We rely on nature to sustain our lives—nature provides us with the the oxygen we breathe, the water we drink, the land on which we build. Nature is also cause for inspiration. Scientists and engineers are now looking to nature to inspire new inventions. This is called biomimicry.
Biomimicry can be broken down like this: ‘bio’ comes from the Greek word for ‘life,’ and ‘mimicry’ comes from the Greek word for ‘imitate.’ Scientists, engineers, and researchers are quite literally looking to imitate life—it’s processes and other aspects. Here are some examples of biomimicry in action.
Shark Skin and Boats
Sharks have scales called dermal denticles. These scales, in some ways, resemble teeth on the shark’s skin. They feel rough to the touch, kind of like sandpaper. These scales make sharks extraordinarily hydrodynamic and they help protect against skin parasites. Researchers are looking into mimicking the structure and function of these scales to create a surface that can be applied to the hull of boats. The hope is that this surface will replace the toxic paints that are currently used.
Sea otters have incredibly dense fur to help them deal with the cold water in which they live. When otters dive into the water their fur traps little bubbles of air. Researchers at MIT are trying to mimic this mechanism in their creation of a wetsuit catered to surfers. Wetsuits these days rely the wearer’s body to warm up a thin layer of water trapped by the wetsuit.
Sea otters are the smallest marine mammals and are a part of the weasel or mustelid family. In California, females reach 35-60 pounds, males 90 pounds, and pups when born are around 3-5 pounds. Unlike most marine mammals, sea otters do not have a blubber layer to help keep them warm in the chilled waters of the Pacific. Instead of blubber, sea otters have the densest fur of any mammal. Their fur is so dense, there are about a million hairs in every square inch of their body. Besides just being extremely dense there are also two layers to their fur making their fur 1.5 inches thick when dry. Sea otter fur has an undercoat and a longer top guard coat. This double layer works extremely well in trapping air thus preventing water from ever making contact with the sea otters skin. In order to keep air trapped sea otters need to keep their fur pristine, this means constantly cleaning their fur.
Photo Credit: dailymail.co.uk
To add air to their undercoat sea otters will lay on their backs in the water and tilt their head down toward their stomach where they then blow air into their fur. In addition to staying warm, this helps increase buoyancy that can help the sea otter swim heavier objects up from the bottom of the ocean. Sea otter pups are born with a special coat that acts like a lifejacket and prevents them from being able to dive. At two months old the pup sheds this special coat.
Southern Sea Otter Photo Credit: Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, CA
The special qualities of sea otter fur made it a desired resource in the 18th and 19th centuries and they were hunted nearly to extinction. In response, sea otters were made one of the first marine mammals protected in the state of California in 1913. Sea otters are still a threatened species in the state of California and today 100,000 to 150,000 are protected by law.
Allen G.S., Mortenson J., and Webb S. 2011. Guide to Marine Mammals of the Pacific Coast. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.
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