Pandas, Bamboo, and Biomimicry

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Bai Yu shows off a paw adapted for bamboo holding.

This summer the San Diego Zoo’s gates stay open a little later, and guests have the opportunity to hang out with their favorite animal friends longer than usual. Our Nighttime Zoo theme, China Celebration, offers a great opportunity to explore the inspirational adaptations of Chinese plants and animals. The process of studying biology in order to gain inspiration to be applied to human design is known as biomimicry or bioinspiration.

Starting with the most popular ambassador of China that we have at the Zoo, our giant pandas are quite the anomaly of the Animal Kingdom. Though their digestive systems and taxonomic classification hint that they should be carnivorous, they are instead so famously partial to bamboo. They even have a specially adapted “thumb” to grasp bamboo stalks as they strip the leaves. This “thumb” is not really a thumb at all but a modified wrist bone, giving pandas the odd appearance of having six fingers on their front paws. Astronauts, with their puffy space gloves, can’t grip nearly as well as our furry black-and-white bears. Just think how effective a robotic panda paw would be when repairing structures in space.

Almost as interesting as the pandas in the realm of biomimicry is their staple diet item, bamboo. Bamboo is a sustainable wood resource AND a source of inspiration for stability in structure. The round, hollow tube of bamboo provides support that allows the stalks to grow very tall and thin without snapping in half. As bamboo bends, the circular cross section bends into an oval, allowing flexibility in order to keep the stalk intact. Bamboo, unlike other plants, has a unique site of photosynthesis. While most plants use leaves as their solar collectors (bamboo included) bamboo plants also have chloroplasts on their stalks. Taking hints from bamboo’s strong structure and efficient use of space can provide inspiration for the design of future buildings.

Another creature from China, just as important to the ecosystem but significantly less cuddly than the panda, is the Mang Mountain pit viper, which will soon be exhibited in the Zoo’s new Panda Trek habitat. This venomous snake is part of a subfamily known and named for its infrared-sensing tissue contained in pits located between their eye and nostril. The Mang Mountain pit viper is a beautifully colored snake with alternating ragged bands of green and brown with the last ten inches or so of its tail a very light blue, an adaptation used to lure in prey. Once prey is unfortunately close (from its perspective) the pit viper strikes and pierces its prey with its almost inch-long fangs. Vipers have astonishing control over their venom secretion, a beneficial trait to conserve a precious and energy-intensive resource. They can release venom through the left fang only, the right fang only, both fangs at once, or none at all. They do so by flexing a muscle near the venom sac that expels the liquid out of the sac and down a tube ending in the fang. Snake locomotion has already inspired several different robot prototypes, but studying venomous snakes and their venom injection system could also inspire new responsive, resource-conscious liquid dispensers.

There are many other inspiring animals from China and from around the world at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Who knows, maybe for your next invention you will be crediting a panda as a consultant!

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Nano-inspiration: Small Size, Big Potential.

Be sure to visit our Biomimicry section for more information about this exciting field of study.