About Author: Dena Emmerson

Posts by Dena Emmerson


Zebras: It’s in the Stripes

Ever wonder why zebras have that characteristic black-and-white pattern?

A combined research team representing universities in both Hungary and Sweden was interested in this very question. In a March 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology, the researchers published the results of their findings. Turns out, zebras don’t like being bitten by horseflies (who does, really?) The pattern on zebras (the alternating black and white stripes) creates a multi-directional array of polarized light, decreasing the attractiveness to horseflies, which prefer linear polarized light. In fact, the width of stripes falls within a special range that makes zebras most disruptive to horseflies. Since zebras live in Africa, where these flies are everywhere, this adaptation is quite helpful. A horsefly bite can have severe effects on reproductive health.

It should be mentioned that another strong hypothesis for stripes on a zebra has to do with the power of the herd. With so many striped zebras standing or running together, it is difficult for a predator to pick out just one individual to target for a meal. A lion can’t tell where one zebra ends and the other begins. Often times, one adaptation serves as a solution to multiple problems. This could very well be the case here with the zebra – both predator and parasite protection.

Bioinspiration, or biomimicry, is the methodology in which biological systems, processes, or elements are studied to draw analogies to be applied to human design challenges in a sustainable manner. Think about the human population of Africa: people are subject to the pesky biting horseflies, too. Wearing clothing patterned in a similar fashion as the zebra, or outfitting a home exterior with zebra stripes, could help keep them horsefly-free.

Applications of this innovation extend beyond humans, too. In this year’s design competition for San Diego middle school students, Emily Canizalez from Challenger Middle School invented a zebra-inspired, pest-deterring blanket for dogs. Animal print is not just fashionable—it’s also functional. But please, keep it faux!

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Cockroach Improves Search and Rescue Robots.


Cockroach Improves Search-and-Rescue Robots

Hissing cockroach

Of all the species found in nature that are inspiring new engineering designs, one would not immediately think of the cockroach as a particularly inspiring animal. But time and time again, especially in the San Francisco Bay area, the cockroach has proven to be a wellspring of information for both biologists and engineers.

The methodology in which biological systems, processes, and elements are studied to draw analogies to be applied to human design challenges is called bioinspiration or biomimicry. The University of California, Berkeley, is leading this interdisciplinary method of design with the departments of integrative biology and engineering teaming up to develop a long list of bioinspired robots. The cockroach, a pest from most perspectives, is their star organism, inspiring generations of wall-climbing, terrain-tackling, and rapid-running robots.

The latest form to come out of their program is a swinging bot. If you’ve ever seen cockroaches scatter when a light is switched on, you know they have pretty impressive evasion tactics. Robert Full, Ron Fearing, and their students discovered an even trickier tactic than scattering: disappearing completely. Cockroaches, geckos, and now robots are capable of inverting from the top of a ledge to the bottom in the blink of an eye. To accomplish this disappearing act, the robot builds up speed, and then runs right off the end of the ledge. Before completely flying off the surface, it grabs the ledge with a hind leg and swings like a pendulum 180 degrees to attach itself to the underside of the same ledge. Cockroaches not only invert themselves on a ledge, but they continue to run on the underside, retaining 75 percent of their running energy.

DASH (Dynamic Autonomous Sprawled Hexapod), the cockroach-inspired robot, is paving the way toward more agile robots, improving search-and-rescue capabilities.

Source: http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/06/06/stealth-behavior-allows-cockroaches-to-seemingly-vanish/

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Biomimicry, Biomaterials, Biometics.


Biomimicry, Biomaterials, Biomimetics

Our armadillo demonstrates the use of keratin, the wonder protein.

On Wednesday, September 28, the San Diego Zoo hosted the second in our series of fall Biomimicry Receptions. This special evening, sponsored by the City of Murrieta, welcomed David Kisailus, Ph.D., and several of his students from the University of California, Riverside, who work on biomaterials and biomimetics. Guests were treated to an after-hours walk through the Zoo to the Treetops meeting room, where wine and appetizers were served while guests mingled with each other and got to know to UC Riverside students. The students gave us some insight into their research through posters and biological artifacts from the animals they work with, such as abalones and marine snails.

Photo credit: Shadow Van Houten

The theme of this evening’s animal presentation was keratin, the wonder protein used to make everything from armadillo scales to rhino horns to human hair. Even though our armadillo ambassador was a bit shy that night and stayed rolled up in a ball, he still had a lot to tell us about the inspiring adaptations found in nature.

Next, City of Murrieta Councilmember Rick Gibbs shared with us all the benefits Murrieta has to offer. All over California there are designated Innovation Hubs or iHubs. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger spearheaded this initiative in March 2010, and in August 2011 the San Diego iHub was expanded to include Temecula, Murrieta, and part of Riverside. We were excited to have this opportunity to visit with Murrieta and spread the word of biomimicry throughout the range of the Innovation Hub.

Photo credit: Shadow Van Houten

The keynote speaker of the evening, Dr. Kisailus, then shared with guests his exciting research in biomimetics. In his lab at UC Riverside they research the question, “What can biology teach us about the synthesis of new materials?” Current engineering processes tend toward the use of unnaturally high temperatures and environmentally unfriendly methods. Dr. Kisailus is trying to amend these practices by studying the processes that occur in nature. Structures are created at ambient temperatures with available materials and biodegrade at the end of their lifetime. Perhaps even more amazing is that these structures often perform better than our human-engineered products. Abalone shells, enamel, and chiton teeth are among the most abrasion-resistant materials, ranking significantly higher than most human-made metal alloys.

Don’t miss the final reception of the series! We are changing up the location and on Thursday, October 27, we’ll be at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Conservation Research, on the grounds of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. This LEED-certified building houses the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, the largest zoo-based research effort in the world. This reception will feature Richard Lieber, Ph.D., of University of California, San Diego, who will be speaking to his experience linking animal biomechanics to orthopedic surgery. Please visit our Biomimicry website for more information and to register.

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, The Da Vinci Index.


The Da Vinci Index

What innovations does the tamandua inspire?

“Biomimicry is one of the most promising scientific fields that could transform the way goods and services are designed, produced, transported, and distributed,” said Lynn Reaser, Ph.D., chief economist at Point Loma Nazarene University’s Fermanian Business and Economic Institute. On Wednesday, August 24, Dr. Reaser presented this exciting news at a special biomimicry reception hosted by the San Diego Zoo, unveiling the Da Vinci Index.

The reception, first in a fall series of three, was held on a lovely summer evening at the San Diego Zoo. Guests took a stroll through the buzzing Nighttime Zoo to the Treetops meeting room, where appetizers and wine awaited them. After a period of getting to know other guests, everyone was called inside to meet a special animal ambassador, a South American tamandua. Guests learned about the tamandua’s unique adaptations and were then called upon to come up with their own innovations—there were an impressive number of tamandua-inspired technologies suggested!

Next, Dr. Reaser took the stage and introduced guests to the Da Vinci Index. Named after famed inventor and early “biomimicrist” Leonardo Da Vinci, the Index looked back over the past decade at biomimicry-related activity and tracked some exciting growth in just 10 short years. Starting in 2000 with a baseline number of 100, the Index measured at 713 by 2010! The Index serves the important purpose of providing a tangible means of measuring the field. It has four components: scholarly articles, patents, grant money awarded, and grant money spent. Tracking these four components gathers an ongoing and accurate sense of activity. The Index will be available on a quarterly basis. There is a very positive trajectory for biomimicry products, companies, and research, and the Da Vinci Index is a significant move toward the establishment of it as a legitimate field for venture capital, scientific research, entrepreneurship, and academia, among others.

Point Loma Nazarene University and the San Diego Zoo, along with CONNECT, the City of San Diego, San Diego State University, University of San Diego, and University of California, San Diego are members of Biomimicry BRIDGE, a San Diego-based collaboration promoting biomimicry in business, research, innovation, design, governance and education. The Da Vinci Index, the first product of the BRIDGE group, is an exciting step in the growing field of biomimicry.

The next biomimicry reception will be on Wednesday, September 28, 2011, and will feature Dr. David Kisailus of University of California, Riverside, who will speak to his research in biomaterials and bridging biology with engineering. More information can be found on the biomimicry section of our website.

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Pandas, Bamboo, and Biomimicry.


Pandas, Bamboo, and Biomimicry

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.


Nano-inspiration: Small size, big potential

There is a lot to be learned from microscopic creatures.

Tom McKeag, teacher of bio-inspired design at University of California, Berkeley, and San Diego Zoo Biomimicry Conference speaker veteran, published an article recently listing his top picks for “The Year in Biomimicry.” And who should appear in the number one spot? Local San Diego startup Biomatrica! This biostability company has innovated technology with huge implications for San Diego and for the world at large.

Biomatrica was inspired by the tiny (microscopic, actually) tardigrade, or water bear. These little critters have the ability to enter into a state of suspended animation known as anhydrobiosis, or life without water. Another, perhaps more familiar, creature with this ability is the brine shrimp, also known as the sea monkey. The sea monkey and the water bear can live in this dehydrated state for upwards of 100 years; simply add some water and they reanimate completely.

Biomatrica recognized this unique ability and was able to replicate this natural principle with synthetic chemistry to create DNA and RNA sample stabilization technology. Normally these samples are stored in freezers that each take up 30 square feet of space and require a constant -80 degrees Celsius to maintain integrity. As you can imagine, this is extremely energy intensive, and you run the risk of freezer malfunction and loss of extremely valuable, sometimes irreplaceable, material. With Biomatrica’s technology, samples are stored at room temperature and can be placed on a laboratory shelf.

Through a pilot study with Stanford University, the savings on the university campus alone would amount to 40 million kilowatt hours of electricity savings, 18,000 metric tons of carbon footprint savings, and $16 million dollars in operating-cost savings over a 10-year period if labs switched to Biomatrica’s sample storage methods. With San Diego being the large biotechnology hub that it is, the implications for this region are immense.

As we move forward into the future, the technology that allows us to explore the microscopic world increases. With Biomatrica’s example for the potential of the nano world to inspire, we are on a promising path.

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Inspired by Zoo Babies. Be sure to visit the Biomimicry section of our Web site for more information about this exciting field of study.


Inspired by Zoo Babies

A newly hatched Satanic leaf-tailed gecko

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.

Takin calf Wushi

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!

River hippo Funani and her newborn boy.

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.


Biomimicry History: 19th Century Spain

The natural weight-distribution pattern of trees can inspire building design.

Though biomimicry can be thought of as a new term, coined in the late ‘90s, it is not a new practice. Engineers and inventors from as far back as Leonardo da Vinci were looking at birds to design flying machines, some more successful than others (if you recall, Leonardo da Vinci never actually got any of his flying machines to fly).

In December 2010, National Geographic magazine featured another proponent of biomimicry from history: Atoni Gaudi, famed architect of many Spanish buildings, but perhaps best known for the yet-unfinished church, the Sagrada Familia (the Sacred Family.) A religious man, he held the belief that, “If nature is the work of God, and if architectural forms are derived from nature, then the best way to honor God is to design buildings based on his work.”

Biomimicry forms the basis of the entire structure’s design. There are columns designed after the natural weight-distribution pattern of trees, stairways that mimic the recurring theme of spirals in nature, honeycomb windows that allow for effective passage of natural light, and many more nature-inspired aesthetics that make up the building’s exterior beauty. All of these designs were Gaudi’s vision in 1883, when he became the chief architect of the church. Even though he passed away in 1926, his designs live on in the Sagrada Familia. The church is set to be completed in 2026, on the centennial anniversary of his passing.

The tale of the Sagrada Familia and Antoni Gaudi’s use of natural form in architecture shows that biomimicry is not a new movement, nor one that is isolated to New Age technology. Emulating nature can be both functional and beautiful, as this Barcelona monument can attest.

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous postBiomimicry: A Look at Snakes. Be sure to visit the Biomimicry section of our Web site for more information about this exciting field of study.


Biomimicry Looks at Snakes

Can tree snakes inspire biomimics?

Biomimicry and flight go way back. Leonardo da Vinci, and others who came after him, studied avian flight to learn how to get humans off the ground and into the air. Unfortunately for Leo, his machines didn’t fly. But eventually the Wright brothers got the proper principles down, and now we have cargo planes that can transport everything from every-day commuters to endangered rhinoceroses. But there is always room for improvement, and now biomimics are looking to an unlikely candidate to study flight—snakes!

Now, of course, snakes don’t really fly per se; they actually glide. But they still utilize the same principles of lift and drag that govern bird flight. “Flying” snakes are unique among the gliding creatures such as flying squirrels and flying fish because they lack the extra membranes that these other organisms use for gliding. Instead, these animals flatten their bodies while in the air and slither as a snake would if on the ground. In effect, their whole body becomes one big wing.

Scientists have been awarded funding to better understand how paradise tree snakes in southeast Asia are able to glide long distances from tree to tree. Where did this funding come from? The U.S. Department of Defense. How exactly the United States is going to use this knowledge is yet unclear; it is purely an informational study at this point.

On that note I ask, What would you make that’s inspired by a “flying” snake?

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Butterfly Sparks Industry Revolution.

Read more about biomimicry and the San Diego Zoo.


Butterfly Sparks Industry Revolution

Blue morpho

About a month ago I wrote about the success of the San Diego Zoo’s first fall biomimicry event: Biomimicry, Innovation, and Sustainability, featuring Pete Foley of Procter and Gamble (see Biomimicry Fall Event Series). I am excited to report that our second event, held Wednesday, October 27, was also a hit!

The topic was “Biomimicry and the Efficiency Revolution” and featured a biomimicry case study. Cheryl Goodman, director of marketing for Qualcomm MEMS Technologies, Inc., took us on the journey from biological inspiration to biomimetic implementation of mirasol®, a display innovation from Qualcomm. Her talk was entitled, “mirasol® Case Study: How the humble butterfly may spark an industry revolution.”

mirasol® is one of our favorite examples to highlight when we discuss biomimicry. Not only is it a complete story (and a successful one), Qualcomm just happens to be a local San Diego company. The story goes that an engineer was lying in a hospital bed and thought what a wonderful thing it would be to harness available light around us and use it to produce color. Being familiar with physics, he knew that many colors in nature don’t come from pigments at all but light waves reflected in the visible range (think blue skies and peacock feathers). He put together a small team of scientists and began to work. Ten years later and an integration with Qualcomm, and we arrive at mirasol® displays.

As Cheryl explains, LCD displays currently in phones feature a powerful backlight of which only six percent actually reaches your eye. As you can imagine, this is a significantly inefficient and battery-draining mechanism. mirasol® displays use the ambient light as their illumination source, absorbing those light waves, and, like nature, reflecting them back at your eye as color. The name mirasol® comes from the Spanish words for “see” and “sun,” mira and sol, and its symbol is the morpho butterfly, an insect that achieves a brilliant blue color without any sort of pigment at all.

The event was held in the Zoo’s Flamingo Sandwich Co., where there were plates aplenty of cheese and vegetables, a fully stocked wine bar, and a comfortable array of tables. We were treated to a special animal presentation featuring Shaman, the great-horned owl. After a quick introduction by Zoo CFO Paula Brock, Cheryl inspired us all with the coming industry revolution.

These events are incredibly special to be a part of, and if you haven’t been able to make it in the past, there is still one more opportunity. On Thursday, November 18, we will welcome Dr. Lynn Reaser, chief economist for the Point Loma Nazarene University Fermanian Business and Economic Institute. She will be speaking on the topic “Biomimicry and the New Economy,” highlighting the (very exciting) results of a biomimicry economic impact study.

To register, visit the Biomimicry section of our Web site. We hope you can join us!

To hear more about mirasol®, biomimicry, and the San Diego Zoo, listen to this KPBS feature.

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Biomimicry: Swarm Intelligence.

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