Biomimicry: Design Inspired by Nature

A couple months ago, I wasn’t so sure that this is such a wonderful time for biologists. Fresh out of the University of California, Los Angeles, with my bachelor’s in biology, it seemed like senior year was filled with nothing but assertions of the imminent doom of wildlife. In ornithology it was the decline of island bird species and the lack of migration corridors. In community ecology it was the destruction of the tropics and receding polar ice caps. In marine biology it was harmful algal blooms and coral reef bleaching. I left college feeling overwhelmed with the world’s problems, unsure about how to tackle them all.

Then I began my summer fellowship in the Conservation Education Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. It was here that I was introduced to biomimicry, the union of bios and mimesis, life and imitation. Biomimicry is recognizing nature’s elegant, efficient designs and applying its systems, processes, and elements to our own challenges. It is biology and industry coming together in a partnership toward a more sustainable future. Whether it is a display screen that refracts light like a butterfly’s wing, a building ventilated like a termite mound, or paint that waterproofs like a lotus leaf, nature has provided us with answers in all fields of design. The solutions are there—all we have to do is find them.

The beautiful thing about biomimicry is it isn’t simply “stealing” ideas from nature; it is gaining inspiration and appreciating the source from which it came. Biomimicry calls for manufacturing products as nature would: no harsh chemicals, ambient temperatures, biodegradable packaging. It is a perfect fit for the San Diego Zoo, with its mission to conserve, educate, and provide recreation. Hopeful biomimics can visit the Zoo, which offers up a 100-acre concentration of thousands of plant and animal species, waiting for their secrets to be unlocked. With partnerships all over the City of San Diego as well as a wealth of on-staff experts, the Zoo is in the perfect position to be a global hub for biomimicry. Our unparalleled facilities have outstanding potential to contribute to this movement.

Being a part of the rising tide of biomimicry has quieted my doubts of career choice. I have seen corporations, scientists, engineers, instructors, and students reach out to the Zoo, eager to integrate biomimicry into their companies, designs, lesson plans, and daily lives. No longer do business and the environment have to be at war. As industry turns its head toward biomimicry, it turns away from destruction. There is hope, once again, for the future of wildlife. It is indeed, a wonderful time to be a biologist.

Dena Emmerson is participating in a summer fellowship with the Conservation Education Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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