In light of the new babies born at the San Diego Zoo, we thought we would share how the unique adaptations inherited by these young Zoo representatives can inspire new inventions. This process of taking inspiration from nature’s forms and functions is called “bioinspiration” or biomimicry.
The first 2011 baby born (hatched!) at the Zoo was a tiny satanic leaf-tailed gecko. Along with the morpho butterfly and the lotus leaf, geckos are ranked among the icons of biomimicry. For years people couldn’t figure out how geckos stuck to surfaces: they don’t create a vacuum with suction cups like some frog species, and they don’t leave a sticky residue like snails. It was finally figured out that geckos have millions of tiny hairs on their footpads; these hairs then split into millions of tinier hairs. It’s these teeny tiny hairs that form a weak interaction, called van der Waals forces, with the surface. These weak interactions add up to a super-strong adhesive force that allows the gecko to stick to almost any surface. Working together, scientists and engineers have created a robot that is able to climb walls using a synthetic gecko foot pad.
Another new member of the Zoo family includes a baby takin named Wushi. Takins, like the okapi, seem to be a mix of a bunch of different animals: horns like a wildebeest, a nose like a moose, and a body like a bison. Of course, all these “borrowed” body parts are all part of the takin’s evolutionary history. Takins can offer many clues as to how to protect from the cold. They have not just a primary but also a secondary coat that keeps them nice and insulated. That moose-like nose contains large sinus cavities that warm up the cool air before it passes to the lungs. They also secrete an oily substance from their skin that prevents water from being absorbed, keeping takins warm and dry in their snowy mountain habitat. With all of these inspiring adaptations, perhaps Wushi will be the face of the next big heating and insulation company!
Our most recent big (and I mean big) baby is the child of river hippos Otis and Funani. He has inherited the capability to secrete what is known as “blood sweat.” Hippo blood sweat, despite being secreted from the skin and having a rosy pigmentation, is actually neither blood nor sweat. This “mucous” substance is capable of absorbing ultraviolet light to act as a natural sunscreen. It also serves to keep the hippo moist and infection-free, even in dirty river water. This unique adaptation could provide clues to improving sun protection and antibiotics.
Zoos provide a wonderful setting for practicing bioinspiration. Plants and animals from all over the world are represented within zoo gates, with new members being added constantly! Next time you’re at the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park, pay a visit to our babies and think, “What can I learn from you?”
Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Biomimicry History: 19th Century Spain. Be sure to visit the Biomimicry section of our Web site for more information about this exciting field of study.