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About Author: Seth Menser

Posts by Seth Menser

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The Answer, My Friend

A capuchin monkey perches on a palm frond as it sways in the wind.

Pop Quiz: What’s invisible, odorless, an unlimited natural resource, and sometimes taken for granted…even cursed upon? Here is a clue: We are now using this renewable resource to produce about 4 percent of our electricity needs in the U.S., and that number is rapidly growing. If you guessed the wind, you’re correct! The almighty wind, a constant and reliable key to our planet’s ecosystem, is so common and present we tend to not even think about it. Now that we are starting to realize its potential, it might be a good idea to look closer at how plants have learned to live with and use it and perhaps learn a thing or two.

Using the wind to disperse seeds is one of the ingenious tactics plants have developed as a survival skill. Lightweight, propeller and parachute-like material attached to seeds represent the most notable and clever use of the wind. Still, there are many other ways. Your idea of the desert may be one of tumbleweeds rolling across the barren, desolate landscape; because deserts tend to be windy, tumbleweed plants have figured out that their best chance of continuing on is to have their seeds dispersed as far and wide as they can. They do this by growing into the shape of a shrubby ball and dying shortly after they set seed. The consistent wind then blows the tumbleweed across the desert, rolling and bouncing, causing its seeds to spread along the way. Using this method, tumbleweeds have figured out the best solution to their problem. Then again, they have had countless years to perfect it!

Another area to look at, and probably more applicable to biomimicry, is how plants protect themselves from the damaging power of wind. Many trees in windy areas have leaves that are thin and narrow, thus reducing the surface area and potential force of strong gales. Palm trees, on the other hand, have developed creative ways to live in harmony with the wind, the most common being in the tissue structure of the petioles (the stems). Here, the petioles are constructed into a crisscrossing mesh of fibrous material, creating a flexible and super-strong tether for the palm fronds and the trunk. What you get is a system that can move and adjust effortlessly as the wind dictates. A possible bio-inspired design could have similarly designed materials for the posts of giant billboards, awnings, or other large stand-alone structures. This could lead to less destruction and death caused by flying debris during hurricanes.

Bonus question time: Where are you most likely to find answers, solutions, and inspiration for many of our current, everyday challenges? Hint: It’s all around us. If you guessed the natural world, you are right, and you, too, are bioinspired!

Seth Menser is a senior horticulturist at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Seeds Make the World Go Round.

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Seeds Make the World Go Round

There is a whole world of wonder inside a fig most people know little of, from fig wasps to seeds.

Every day I get blown away by certain characteristics of plants. There is no lack of drama or intrigue here. From succulents that look like rocks to flowers that smell like carrion to attract pollinators, the botanical world never seems to disappoint. It would be nice to think that plants do this for the pure pleasure of us humans. But this is, of course, not the case. Their reason is simple: survival. I thought it would be fun to look at some of the various ways plants distribute their seeds. Seed development and dispersal methods take high priority and have had a timeless trial-and-error process resulting in ingenious systems for prolonging the species, something us humans could learn a thing or two from!

We all have memories as kids blowing dandelions into the wind. What we were doing was spreading their seeds. Many primitive and early plants used the wind to spread pollen and seeds, and some still do. As more and more creatures roamed the Earth, plants exploited animals to help pollinate their flowers and distribute seeds. (Plant pollination is another fascinating topic that can be explored in a future blog; for now we will stick with the seeds.) With the help of the increasing numbers of fauna, the floral world really began to blossom.

As with most members of the bean family (fabaceae), Scotia brachypetala's seeds are hard and typical looking. However, many can be very colorful!

If you want something to go somewhere, wrap it in a delicious package. That is exactly what fruit does. The fruit attracts animals to take it off to another part of the forest with the seeds inside where they can be tossed aside to germinate. That is the tastiest method of seed dispersal, but many others exist. Take, for example, seeds that have barbs or hooks. They attach to a passing animal and get a free ride for a distance and fall off. Nuts are often collected by squirrels and buried, later to be forgotten about and so become trees. Winged seeds use propeller-like motion to glide away from their parent plant. And even some seed pods explode when touched by raindrops, sending their seeds a good distance away!

The bottom line is that plants need their seeds to be put in a good position to germinate and carry on the species. By these clever techniques, they achieve this. It is an area in the natural world often overlooked but should not be forgotten.

Seth Menser is a senior horticulturist at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Biomimicry: Nature Deals with Fire.

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Biomimicry: Nature Deals with Fire

The seed-laden cones on banksias can survive the flames of a rushing wildfire and use them advantageously. Pictured is scarlet banksia, in Southwest Australia.

I woke up the other morning to the smell of smoke, an unfortunate sign of fall here in San Diego. Luckily, it was a small brush fire and contained before the dry, Santa Ana winds really picked up. It was a sober reminder that we live in a part of the world that has fires. Our fire season is a natural cycle and has been going on for millennia. We are not the only part of the world where fire is part of the ecosystem. Fires can occur all over the world, but in South Africa, Australia, and California, it is a routine. So perfectly, like most things in nature, native plants in these areas have developed ways to grow and even use fire to their advantage.

Fire is destructive, yet it does serve a purpose. It clears vegetation, produces nutrients, and opens up light to the forest floor. Many plant seeds in wildfire country, like conifers and proteas, are enclosed in a fire-proof, protected cone. These cones are designed for fire. A more specific example of this is the beautiful banksia of Southwest Australia. The seed-laden cones on banksias can survive the flames of a rushing wildfire and use them advantageously. The intense heat causes the valved capsules, which contain the seeds, to open up. When the fire passes and the cones cool off, the seeds fall to the ground, ready to become new plants. Because the fire has burned vegetation and let in sunlight, the altered forest floor is now the ideal place for the seeds to successfully germinate; a perfect and well-tested system in this seemingly harsh environment.

A common grasstree in Perth, Southwest Australia, is renewed by a brush fire.

So what can we take away from this? How can we use nature here as our teacher? Well, we already have at least one example of using fire to our advantage, and ironically, it protects us from fire. Sprinkler systems in buildings activate by burning a release mechanism. Once engaged, the water will put out the flames. But we should look beyond this.

There are two options for the millions of people who live in fire-prone areas: either move away or learn ways to deal with this natural occurrence. Since most of us are going to stay, perhaps we can look into paints that change their chemical structures when intense heat is applied and, in turn, form a fire-resistance barrier. This would be a savior for houses and structures. Even reforestation projects could be preemptively done, where native seeds could be set out ahead of time, in nonnative stands of plants, waiting for the inevitable wildfire.

Many good ideas could, once again, come to us by looking at how nature tackles adversity. Our mindset could change so that instead of waking up to the smell of smoke and being in fear, we could be inspired.

Seth Menser is a senior horticulturist at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Biomimicry: Hope for the Future.

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Biomimicry: Hope for the Future

Meerkats have dark hair around their eyes to protect them from the sun.

We live lives of convenience and ease. Our forefathers and mothers would be astonished at the technological and scientific advances we have made in the last 100-plus years. Diseases have been cured and communication has become instantaneous. In this short time, we have gone from using horses and boats for transportation to cars, trains, airplanes, and even spaceships to take us even further. It is unprecedented that we can now get to the other side of the world in less than a day. If we could go back in time and show people in the 1800s what life is like today, we would probably be laughed out of town. Yet all these achievements have come at a cost. Much of our planet’s flora and fauna have become endangered, and in many cases extinct, because of the depletion of natural resources and environments. Even our medicines today are becoming less and less effective as viruses are building resistances to them. The tide of thinking has changed for the better, recently, in solving tomorrow’s problems as the idea of using the natural world as our teacher has replaced our drive to contain and alter it. We call this “new science” biomimicry, and it is undoubtedly going to be the next major element toward shaping our future in a sustainable and responsible manner.

The idea of using certain desired characteristics of plants, animals, and organisms is not new. In fact, if you go back in history you will see many examples of this, from using palm fronds, which repeal water, as roofing on shelters to Leonardo da Vinci observing birds in flight and developing his concepts of “flying machines.” Even today such simple examples of biomimicry exist, and we probably don’t make the connection to the natural world. Just look at football and baseball players on sunny days: many of them put black grease under their eyes to protect them from the sun, as the black color absorbs the sunlight, giving them better vision. Dark colors around eyes can be observed in many diurnal animals, most famously the meerkat. Meerkats need this protection, for they spend a good part of their days with their eyes to the sky on the lookout for predatory birds; in southern Africa, where they are from, the sun is plentiful.

Looking back, we have a clearer picture of the damage we have done to our environment. The common consensus is that we need to move in a different direction toward tomorrow or lose everything. Using the natural world as our classroom makes perfect sense. Plants, animals, and organisms have been hard at work for a few billion years, perfecting solutions for problems. Why would we need to look anyplace else? Biomimicry offers us a whole new world of possibilities and answers. It is a step in the right direction; actually, it’s the “natural” choice.

Seth Menser is a senior horticulturist at the San Diego Zoo. He will be contributing periodical blogs on biomimicry, with an emphasis on the botanical world. Read his previous post, Caudiciforms: Botanical Camels.

Learn more about the exciting field of biomimicry.