Bio-mimi-WHAT?!

Splash-backed poison frog

The first time I explained biomimicry to a stranger, I was in an airport waiting for a flight. My copy of Janine Benyus’ book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature sat on my lap. The fellow waiting next to me asked what it was about. Being a relatively new convert at the time, I was at a bit of a loss for how to quickly and succinctly explain the concept to him. “The author says, ‘It’s about looking to nature for inspiration for new inventions. It’s not really technology or biology; it’s the technology of biology. It’s making a fiber like a spider, or lassoing the sun’s energy like a leaf.’” My efforts to explain the concept were rewarded with a blank stare, assuring me I had completely baffled him.

The word biomimicry literally means “to copy life.” But it is more than that. Biomimicry looks to nature—its models, processes, and systems—and emulates or takes inspiration from it to solve human problems sustainably.

The earliest biomimics thought on a simple scale—an early human observed a spider efficiently catching her dinner, wove his own web, and tossed it into the sea. As human technology has grown more involved, so has the biomimetic approach to problem solving—a Swiss man took his dog for a walk through a meadow and came out covered in burrs. He looked at one under a microscope and came up with the idea for Velcro®. And just recently, scientists have begun mimicking the nerve toxins of the poison arrow frog to create pain medication 200 times more potent than morphine without the side effects.

Mother Nature is, by necessity, creative. Janine Benyus points out that the Earth has already spent nearly four billion years as a research and development lab, and it has already solved many of the problems we are currently struggling with. Energy issues? Nature runs on the sun. Trash? It leaves no waste and recycles everything. Inefficiencies? What doesn’t work doesn’t survive.

Monarch butterfly

As the viceroy butterfly mimics the monarch, humans can look to and imitate the best-adapted organisms on Earth. The termite’s nest is a model of sustainable and efficient design. Shouldn’t we learn from organisms that have been building efficiently for 200 million years and apply their technology to our own designs?

Termites are known for their ability to eat wood and process cellulose. Macrotermes michaelseni, an African species of mound-building termite, builds a remarkable nest, averaging 10 feet tall with a 15-foot diameter base. These termites are able to maintain the temperature inside their nests to within one degree of 88 degrees Fahrenheit, day and night, while the external temperatures vary between 37 and 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Architect Mick Pearce collaborated with engineers at Arup Associates to build a mid-rise building in Harare, Zimbabwe, that has no air-conditioning yet stays cool thanks to a termite-inspired ventilation system. Called the Eastgate Center, it is modeled on the self-cooling mounds of these termites. Using design methods inspired by indigenous Zimbabwean masonry and the self-cooling mounds of African termites, the Eastgate Center provides a blueprint for self-regulating human buildings and it is a beautiful example of biomimicry.

The respect at the heart of this field is what separates biomimicry from previous efforts to dominate, domesticate, or steal nature’s secrets. Author Benyus says, “Biomimicry ushers in an era based not on what we can extract from nature but on what we can learn from her. This shift from learning about nature to learning from nature requires a new method of inquiry, a new set of lenses, and above all, a new humility.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Cindy Spiva-Evans is an education lead in the San Diego Zoo’s Education Department. Read her previous post, A Whale of a Tale.

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