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.


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


Butterfly Watching

WOO HOO! Butterflies are back! Spring is in the air, plants are blooming, and I saw my first two monarchs in my courtyard last week!

As a zookeeper, I’ve worked with many species during my career. I’ve always been concerned about wildlife and habitats and how vitally important it is to conserve both, as each is dependent on the other for survival. But when I started working in the San Diego Zoo’s Entomology Department, it really hit me. Working with invertebrates up close opened my eyes to how important conservation, and education, is to our survival…and theirs.

The population of one of my favorite animals, the monarch butterfly, has seriously declined in the last few years. While they get food in the form of nectar from flowers, they perform the critical act of pollination and thus are important for the survival of plants and the potential production of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. The best effort to help this beautiful butterfly comes by planting native milkweed, their host plant, in our backyards and gardens. While it might seem like a small act, each of us really can make a difference.

Behind our Insect House in the Zoo’s Discovery Outpost is a small flower garden containing several plants for attracting butterflies. I had always wished I could do something similar in my own home, but I live in a very small condo with an even smaller garden space. What space I have is planted with a lot of succulents. But last year, I decided a small spot is better than none and planted six milkweed plants in the hope of attracting monarch butterflies. While I didn’t ask, or expect, help from my neighbors, I did let everyone know what I was doing and how important it was and asked all to help “monitor” the new plants.

Within a few days, we had a number of butterfly sightings. We saw females laying eggs on the plants and later on watched as the caterpillars started eating them. What joy at watching all the butterflies alighting on the plants, going from one plant to another! One of the unexpected perks was how excited my neighbors became when the monarchs started arriving. It was quite surprising! Interest really increased when we spotted the caterpillars. Then we started comparing notes on how many caterpillars we saw, and before we knew it we started having “happy hours” to compare notes on our new neighbors. What a blast! Our complex is small, and we all know each other, but having a new butterfly garden created a good reason to actually stop and visit each other. And that led to several happy hours and lots of laughter during the season. But not to be lost in all this excitement is the fact we started a new way station for our insect friends, and I hope this will help increase their numbers.

Regardless of how much space you have, you can help, too. It’s a great teaching tool for children about how important we all are and how important it is to save habitat for our animal friends. If you don’t have any children, you can always have a happy hour with your neighbors.

If you decide to plant a butterfly garden for monarchs, be sure to use native milkweed rather than tropical milkweed, which is lasting longer and longer in our warmer climate and is encouraging monarchs to “stay out too late.” They need to be on their way to an overwintering site by fall, and using a native species such as Asclepias fasicularis ensures the plant dies back after the first cold snap.

I will leave you with the story of the atala butterfly Eumaeus atala. On Key Biscayne in Florida, this endangered butterfly’s range was restricted to the northern end. There was suitable habitat in the southern region, but it was thought to be inaccessible to the butterfly due to development throughout the central portion. The host plant for this species, however, was a favored plant for backyard gardens; enough people planted it to create a bridge for the butterfly to reach the southern edge and new habitat, where it is now established. Thus, the beauty of citizen science and butterfly gardens!

Barbara Boon is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Note: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation provides native seed, including native milkweed, to interested parties.


Garden Fest Insect House Tweet-up

The crew from last year's Festival of Flight tweet-up

UPDATE: The tweet-up is now full. Stay tuned for the next one!

Sure, we’re known for our animal collection, but did you know we’re also a world renowned botanical garden with over 700,000 rare and exotic plants? That’s why our next tweet-up (if you don’t know what a tweet-up is, educate yourself) at the Zoo will be on May 12 at 9:30 a.m. to celebrate our annual Garden Festival. However, unlike last year’s Garden Festival tweet-up, which was all about the plants, this year’s tweet-up is focusing on those cute little critters you might find in your garden at home: bugs!

Our very passionate insect keepers, Paige Howorth and Kelli Walker, will lead guests on a VIP tour of the Insect House in the Children’s Zoo, and they’ll bring out a few crazy bugs for guests to see up close. Unfortunately, our Insect House has a limited capacity, so we can only allow 30 tweeps to join us. If you want in (Zoo admission required), tweet these exact words:

I want to make friends w/bugs @ the #GardenFest tweet-up at the @sandiegozoo on May 12

The first 30 people who tweet the above will get a direct message from us with an invite to the tweet-up. If you’re not one of the first 30, you’ll be put on the waiting list. Please note, Zoo admission is required. If you want to bring guests, let us know and we’ll try to make accommodations depending on space available, but no promises. Our apologies for the limitations, but we’re excited to introduce 30 lucky tweeps to our creepy crawly friends. Now hurry and get tweeting!

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, A Story of Love at the Zoo.


The Queen Will Not Be Denied

The queen's head and part of her thorax peek out of the fungus garden at her last "sighting" in 2007. The size difference between the queen and the worker ants is dramatic.

A keeper jokingly told me the other day why, early in his career, he chose to work with large mammals: “I like to actually be able to find and count all the animals in my care.” It made me laugh—who wouldn’t? But at that time I didn’t know that I would soon be counting—at long last—one of the most notorious and elusive animals in the San Diego Zoo’s insect collection and that it would inspire more anxiety than relief!

Tracking animals in the Zoo’s entomology collection affords little of the numerical certainty that helps to manage other animal groups. The reality is that in some of our invertebrate cultures, there are just going to be too many individuals to count, and certainly too many to count each day. This is not to say that we don’t keep track of them—in fact, we adhere to very strict permit conditions issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in order to display and rear the regulated exotic invertebrates in our collection. When they recommend, as a containment measure, the presence of queen–excluding mesh on our leafcutter ant queen’s accommodations, that’s what we provide. Huh? Allow me to explain…

Paige prepares to moves the young colony and queen into the queen chamber in 2007.

All ant species have a reproductive division of labor, an overlap of at least two generations, and cooperative care of young. For our leafcutter ants (one of the most highly specialized ant species on Earth), it translates to one enormous queen ant, which accomplishes all the egg-laying in the colony, and hundreds of thousands of varied-age sterile worker ants that do everything else. (This is an immense oversimplification, but a treatment of leafcutter ant biology and behavior is another blog entirely!)

Leafcutters are quite famous for the long, green rivers of cut plant material that they produce while traveling back to their nests. They use the cuttings as a substrate to maintain and grow a fungus within their nests that they use for food. In the areas where they occur—particularly Central and South America—they are widely regarded as agricultural pests. So it is no surprise that our regulatory agencies would like to feel secure that though we may not always be able to see the queen ant, we always know where she is. Enter the queen excluder!

The queen ant in the tropical species that we hold, Atta cephalotes, is a big girl. In ant terms, she towers over the other colony members at a size of about one inch in length. But it is the widest, most rigid part of the queen’s body that the excluder must contain—the thorax. Our queen-excluding mesh is ¼-inch x ½-inch, big enough for the largest ants to access her chamber, but sufficient to keep Her Majesty in one spot.

And in one chamber she has remained for the five years she has been with us. We always feel confident that she is doing well based on the colony behavior and health of the fungus gardens (particularly the royal one), and that has to be enough, as we have not actually SEEN her for four years. Buried within the royal chamber, she is busy laying eggs (close to 30,000 per day), and participates in no other daily aspects of colony life. As long as she is producing continual reinforcements for the short-lived adult ants, the work of the colony carries on.

Here’s the containment area in the Insect House, showing the current housing of the two leafcutter ant colonies at the San Diego Zoo. Individual fungus gardens for each colony are maintained within the larger terraria.

Early in November, we noticed that the ants were reducing the amount of fungus in the queen chamber, little by little. Knowing that as the queen goes, so goes the colony (for leafcutter ants are not capable of producing a “backup” queen if their foundress dies), this was an unsettling turn of events. Each day we would check the garden and try to triangulate the height and shape of the fungal peaks (“Do you think it looks smaller today? I think it looks smaller.”), until we could no longer deny that something was changing. And that change seemed likely to include the relocation of the queen, since the ants had already started the demolition of her quarters.

The ants, of course, are quite oblivious to our needs, wants, and regulations. If they encounter an obstacle in nature, they do what it takes to surmount it. So here we were, faced with the unconquerable result of a decision rule (the obvious desire to move her), a very large queen, and a port of exit too small to safely accomplish the task (the excluder mesh). This made me very nervous, because I knew they would try to get the queen where they wanted her to be, but the outcome of that effort might be MOST unsatisfactory to ALL parties involved.

When I came in on Sunday, senior keeper Barb told me that the ants had been trying to move the queen out through the mesh, royal head first. Panic! There are anecdotal reports of other captive colonies, faced with this very circumstance, giving it a try and ending up with the head of the queen on the outside of the chamber and the rest of her body inside—effectively excluded, but with a huge price. Barb covered the entrance with a piece of plastic, and I headed for the toolbox in a hurry.

The young colony's fungus garden was only the size of a softball when it arrived at the San Diego Zoo.

As long as the excluder keeps the queen in a controlled area (one that could be examined if need be), we are well within the limits of our permit. Since the back area of our display colony houses several fungus chambers, including the queen’s, we decided to give her access to all of the other chambers in the off-exhibit area and move the excluder to the port that leads into the exhibit. In this way, the ants would have some freedom to choose where to house the queen, and all we would lose is the ability to know exactly in which of the 11 chambers she resides. Though that specific knowledge is a huge benefit for long-term management of the colony, I decided that we could live without it—after all; there is no long-term management for a colony with a headless queen.

In fits and starts, scraping angry, biting ants off of each hand as I went, I snipped away the steel excluder mesh at the chamber entrance, placed a fitting with a new excluder on the exit tubing, and removed the plastic barrier that Barb had placed earlier that morning. Within an hour or so, I got a call from lead keeper Kelli: “They are taking her out!” I ran back to the containment room, and we all watched a few supermajors (also known as soldiers) emerge with an entourage of medium-size workers carrying the queen! They made a direct line for a chamber on the bottom row, and after a few gut-wrenching (for us) tries to get her in there sideways, they figured it out, and she was in. And then she was GONE! During the transport, she remained still, but once she hit the ground in the chamber, she made her way quickly to the interior.

Seeing the queen of a leafcutter ant colony is a really unique, fascinating, and rare experience. It is a glimpse of a hidden world, and for insect lovers, akin to seeing a celebrity—only way better! But in managed care, it can be nerve-racking, because it could mean that the colony is rejecting something about their current living arrangement. So it appeared here, and we are happy to have been able to read the signs and facilitate the transition.

A few days later, there is harmony again, with all chambers receiving new leaf material and business resuming as usual. Leafcutter queens can live at least a decade, laying more than ten million eggs per year. Assuming there was no disease or failing in fertility that precipitated this event (or any that follow it), I hope she stays with us for the rest of her long life. And please understand that I say this in the most respectful way: I would gladly count lions, eagles, or stick insects all day long, but I hope I NEVER see Her Royal Majesty again!

Paige Howorth is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Off with his Leeeeg!


Hooray for Pollinators!

National Pollinator Week is June 20 to 26, 2011, and there is no easier way to convince people that we need insects than with pollinators. Everyone knows pollinators are important, but it is hard to conceive of how heavily we rely upon them for our survival. Pollinators—the various bees, flies, butterflies, beetles, and other animals that spread pollen around from flower to flower—are responsible for creating one out of every three bites of food that we eat. So many fruits, vegetables, and nuts are pollinated by insects that I won’t even attempt to list them all. Don’t like fruits and vegetables, you macho types? Insects also pollinate alfalfa and clover, which are used to raise cows and other animals. No pollinators, no meat (or at least affordable meat).

Unfortunately, pollinators are in trouble. We’re changing the world in various ways so devastating to insects that though they can be highly adaptable, hearty creatures, they’re having a hard time keeping up. Honey bees, native bees, butterflies, flies, beetles—we need them all, the more variety the better, since if one species struggles, there will be others to pick up the slack.

So what can you do to help? First and foremost, take that itchy trigger finger off that bottle of insecticide. Even if you’re not willing to live with insects, there may be other, more sustainable ways to address your problem. Investigate green options to eliminate pests.

Second, plant nectar and pollen-producing plants, preferably native ones, whenever possible. The pollinators will love it, and your garden will be full of flowers. It’s a win-win.

Third, allow a little clutter in your yard. Pollinators are attracted to nectar and pollen, but they also need places to live and overwinter. Leaving a few bundles of twigs, a pile of leaves, or some patches of bare dirt behind can make a lot of difference. A perfectly manicured garden can be a barren wasteland to a pollinator. Cultivate a little wildness in your yard. You can even buy or construct insect houses to attract all different kinds of pollinators.

And fourth: come see us at the Zoo! We’ll be doing daily presentations about pollinators in the Insect House in Discovery Outpost at 11:30 each day. While you’re at the Zoo, check in on foursquare to receive a beautiful poster created to commemorate Pollinator Week. And stop in at the Mercado to pick up your poster and check out mason bee houses, native plants, and books about pollinators.

I hope I have convinced you to accept insects into your life. Whether you like it or not, they’re here to stay. And no matter how you feel about them, they are essential to our very survival—so let’s give them a hand!

Ester Chang is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Off with His Leeeeg!

A bird-eating spider like Mino

Mino is a spider—a really, really big one! In fact, he is a goliath bird-eating spider, one of the largest tarantula species in the world. With a leg span of around 9 to 11 inches (23 to 28 centimeters) measured toe to toe across the body, an abdomen covered with urticating or barbed, itchy hairs, and an attitude, he is a perfect example of “look but don’t touch.”

So what happens when you have to get up close and personal with this guy? You do it very, very carefully!

Mino’s keeper, Chris, noticed recently that his right rear leg had developed a necrotic area near the “knee.” Mino is an old guy (for a male tarantula), and we expect him to go on for another few months at best, so we opted to wait and see if he could get the leg portion off or if it would dry up and fall off on its own. Since Mino’s leg was not leaking hemolymph (spider blood), we felt safe to watch it for a while. Chris became concerned about a week later, when the leg “rot” seemed to have traveled to the segment closest to his body, so we decided it was time to intervene.

The typical response to a leg injury for a tarantula is to remove the leg, or portion of it, at the closest joint, and then stem the flow of hemolymph with superglue or other quick-drying adhesive (no, I am not kidding!). I decided on Saturday morning that we should proceed with the surgery as soon as possible, and Isabel and I got him prepped while we waited for our veterinary technicians, Marianne and Jill.

Tarantula, and really any invertebrate, medicine has been historically limited; however, there have been many advances in recent years within the veterinary community, and of course our vet staff has been riding the wave. I was prepared to provide anesthesia in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas for Mino, both to reduce the stress of the procedure and ensure the safety of those of us sticking our hands in his tank! Thanks to Kim, the nursery keeper that day, we had a lab tray ready with long-handled cotton swabs and a big syringe with a curved tip for irrigation. Isabel and I were suited up with safety glasses for the hairs that aerosolize when kicked off, leather gloves, and a CO2 tank and plastic cover for administering the anesthesia.

A word about anesthesia and invertebrates: within the invertebrate collection, we regularly use CO2 to ensure the safety of the keepers and animals. When I moved the leafcutter ant queen and workers over to their new home on exhibit, I used CO2 to “chill them out” during the move and avoided being ravaged by the huge soldier ants. When Ester services the assassin bug exhibit, she uses CO2 to do a thorough cleaning, rather than have to dodge the piercing mouthparts of 300 venomous bugs! Using CO2 seemed like the logical step for Mino’s surgery, though we had never before needed to use it on a tarantula.

When Marianne and Jill got there, I went over what I thought would be the best plan: gas, forceps, irrigation, swabs, glue, new enclosure. Any questions? Marianne then told me that she had attended a veterinary lecture dealing specifically with tarantula leg removal (wow, what are the odds?!), and that the use of CO2 would interfere with the animal’s natural mechanism to cast the leg. She also said that when the spider wakes up from the anesthesia, it can be very aggressive as a result. Armed with this information, and since I already consider Mino to be a fairly aggressive spider, we decided to go cold turkey.

I coaxed Mino out of his burrow. His leg looked close to coming off, but still needed some help. I put a clear, square plastic container over his body to protect Marianne as she grabbed the end of the leg with forceps and applied pressure. Mino bared his fangs and protested, but, to my surprise, eventually began rotating in a circle (as Isabel chased him with the flashlight), almost like he knew what was going on and wanted to help. That is me being incredibly anthropomorphic, but in reality his behavioral responses are probably lined up for something like this if it happened in the wild! After a few minutes, the leg released, cleanly separating from the joint near the base. We moved him to a new enclosure with a more sterile substrate, and since no hemolymph was leaking at all, we didn’t even have to apply the glue. Success—and high fives all around!

The ailing leg, along with tools of the trade

Mino is still in recovery but doing well. Chris and I have since been using a natural umbilical cord-care powder on the stump, and it looks dry and clean. Since he is not getting too defensive when we reach in to apply the powder, he is still getting his attitude back—but we have every reason to believe he will recover and live out the rest of his days in seven-legged peace.

This was a great example of how progressive our vet staff is and how we all have new things to learn, every day. And also how to give TLC to an animal that can be hard to get close to, in more ways than one! Look for more adventures from Mino’s “brothers” in future blog posts—we are working on breeding this species, and since we have one receptive female and several males, it is going to be an interesting summer.

Paige Howorth is an animal care manager at the San Diego Zoo.


Butterfly Jungle Preview Dinner

It’s no secret that the Safari Park’s annual Butterfly Jungle event is a big draw, and the Hidden Jungle exhibit can get a little, um, “cozy,” during peak hours. Most people agree that the bright, fluttery payoff is definitely worth dealing with the crowds, but if you’d rather avoid them entirely for a special VIP preview of Butterfly Jungle the evening before it opens, and be treated to a delicious four-course meal immediately following your exclusive peek, then you can’t miss our Butterfly Jungle Preview Dinner. I had the honor of attending this year’s Dinner, and I have to say it’s probably the best way to experience Butterfly Jungle.

Our night began when we were ushered straight into the front door of the Hidden Jungle exhibit after a quick Sharpshooter photo (which you have the option of purchasing after the Dinner). This was my first year ever attending Butterfly Jungle, and as soon as we entered the exhibit, it was immediately apparent why people go so nuts over it. It was like walking into a dream—an alternate reality where bright, airy spirits fill the air in the shape of butterflies. Okay, that description was pretty melodramatic, but trust me, it’s an incredible experience. I think I’m even going to use the word enchanting, if that’s okay with you.

Because the Jungle was only open to Dinner guests, there was plenty of room to move around and position myself for prime picture-taking or tree-impersonation in hopes of coaxing a few butterflies to land on me. We also had the option to take a break from the Jungle to enjoy nearby hors d’oeuvres and libations, but as you can imagine, it was hard to tear ourselves away from the exhibit. After an hour of alone time with the butterflies, we were led to the Hunte Nairobi Pavilion for a brief yet enlightening presentation by the Park’s insect keeper, Sarah Jenkins, on butterflies and their fascinating biological nuances. Then it was time to feed our hungry stomachs!

The dinner began with a subtle, buttery farfalle soup with butterfly pasta, a broth of wild mushroom and petite spring vegetables with an herbed Parmesan crisp. It was appropriately mushroom-forward with a nice foundation of earthy, herbal notes to balance it out and ease our taste buds into the courses to follow.

Fresh-cut chicken breast marinated in lavender-infused honey, pan roasted and served over jasmine rice and grilled asparagus with garlic lavender jus

The second course came in the form of a bright, floral berry salad with baby spinach leaves, fresh blackberries, strawberries, and blueberries in a champagne vinaigrette. It was finished off with candied pecans, to harmonize with the sweet notes, and a fried goat cheese medallion to provide a nice, savory contrast to the fresh, crisp greens and berries.

Next came the entree, which was decidedly the star of the show—fresh-cut chicken breast marinated in lavender-infused honey, pan roasted and served over jasmine rice and grilled asparagus with garlic lavender jus. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. There was nothing unexpected or exotic about this dish, but everything about it was well executed. The chicken and asparagus were cooked to perfection, and the rice was the welcome neutral third party to balance the highs and lows. The dessert, a vanilla sponge cake with a layer of raspberries topped with mascarpone  cream and crushed pistachios, was the perfect fluffy exclamation point to the experience.

Vanilla sponge cake with a layer of raspberries topped with mascarpone cream and crushed pistachios

Many thanks to the excellent Safari Park keepers and culinary staff for an unforgettable night of ethereal insects and delightful food and company. If you like incredible dream-like encounters and decadent meals, keep your eyes peeled for next year’s Butterfly Jungle Preview Dinner. If you don’t, check your pulse. You might be dead 😉

Check out the rest of Matt’s pics from the night.

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Roar & Snore Safari at the Safari Park.

Note: Butterfly Jungle runs through May 8, 2011, at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


A Prescription for New Ideas

In past blog posts we have shared our views on why the San Diego Zoo finds biomimicry so exciting (see previous post, Butterfly Sparks Industry Revolution). Recall that our attempts to save species are increasingly compromised by their loss of habitat in the wild. Habitat is disappearing due to the depletion of resources. Biomimicry is learning from nature. If we could look to nature for inspiration for future innovations, it is quite possible that the plants and animals might “speak to us” about new technologies, designs, and products. All could be more sustainable, efficient, effective, and, from their perspective, take strain off of the environment.

How could a trip to the San Diego Zoo be part of a prescription for new ideas and game-changing innovations?

Coming to the Zoo is a chance to slow down. Life in the 21st century is moving at a fast pace, yet you may have noticed that great ideas tend to happen when the mind quiets down and is not multitasking. In the shelter of a zoo, you can momentarily forget about the monthly reports and predictable routine (as hectic as it might be) waiting back at the office. Great ideas also happen as one steps away from personal silos. I have noticed that I have great ideas when I travel, and often it is not even at the destination. They seem to pop up at the airport, simply because I am out of my routine (please ignore the irony that I work at the San Diego Zoo).

A trip to the Zoo is different for every individual, and part of that is because you bring “you” to your encounter with nature…your training, beliefs, and curiosity. Maybe you are crazy about pandas, or snakes give you the shivers, or find the grace of giraffes fascinating to watch. Any vista of nature—sights, sounds, and smells—is not random, yet no two people will see the same thing. What one experiences are patterns: patterns that are unconscious analogies for the challenges you face each day. These analogies take many forms and are visions feeding into the imagination. At the zoo you are minutes away from the wilds of Madagascar, New Guinea, and South America. It is definitely not the cubicle or conference room at the office.

The Zoo is a different, far larger world of stimulation, where the less restrictive the analogies, the bigger the leap one can make. These analogies twist and turn and begin to map themselves point by point into a mental picture that is not yet a solution but suddenly captures your attention. That close-up image of the butterfly’s wing or the gecko’s toes suddenly, amazingly, speaks in a language that has meaning for your problem at work. Welcome to the world of biomimicry, as inspiration “pops” into existence.

What is the San Diego Zoo’s role in biomimicry? A visit to the Zoo seeds the imagination with new thoughts, images, and analogies that may inspire great ideas to change the future. It starts with you. You belong in the Zoo.

Jon Prange is the venture business manager for the San Diego Zoo.

Click here to sign up for Conservation Beat, a monthly e-newsletter featuring the San Diego Zoo’s conservation efforts, including a special section on biomimicry.


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.

Click here to sign up for Conservation Beat, a monthly e-newsletter featuring the San Diego Zoo’s conservation efforts, including a special section on biomimicry.


Biomimicry: Swarm Intelligence

In a 1987 paper, Craig Reynolds wrote about an algorithm he had produced that modeled the flocking behavior of birds. He found that by imputing three simple rules for his digital individuals to follow, flock behavior could be simulated. The three rules are as follows:

One: Collision Avoidance: avoid collisions with nearby flockmates
Two: Velocity Matching: attempt to match velocity with nearby flockmates
Three: Flock Centering: attempt to stay close to nearby flockmates

There is something to be learned from this system of swarm intelligence. As human population density increases, the number of vehicles on the roads increases, which subsequently increases the chances of collision. In the United States alone there are more than six million accidents each year. Yet every day flocks of birds, schools of fish, and swarms of insects travel in close proximity without colliding.

The latest and greatest of swarm intelligence biomimicry comes out of Japan. A car manufacturer’s little robots have been programmed to avoid colliding with each other and their inanimate surroundings. Each robot is programmed with a school-of-fish algorithm and a different personality to simulate individual drivers.The same three rules apply: avoid collisions, match velocity, and attempt to stay close to neighbors. By looking to swarm intelligence as inspiration, mathematicians have programed algorithms that could be used in future transportation systems. It might require surrendering some driving freedom to the decision-making algorithm, but considering the amount of automobile accidents and associated stop-and-go traffic, it is a small price to pay.

Swarm intelligence also makes a great case for conservation. The San Diego Zoo houses lovable giant pandas and playful polar bears, but we also have a great space dedicated to the minifauna of the world. The Insect House may not be as big of a crowd draw as Elephant Odyssey, but it certainly houses animals that are just as important. If swarm intelligence is to be further studied, we need to make sure swarming animals, such as locusts, are preserved. Saving these little invertebrates could save human lives.

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Vision for A Sustainable Decade.

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