Bringing Bioinspiration to Education

We make science fun for students!

You may have heard about the emerging field of biomimicry, or “bioinspiration,” and the role it plays in our daily lives. From the kingfisher inspiring a more energy efficient and noise conscious bullet train (see post Kingfishers and Bullet Trains) to the termite mound serving as a model for more sustainable building practices (see post Bio-Mimi-What?!), nature-inspired design has become the answer to many design challenges around the world. Biomimicry may prove that innovation inspired by nature is a serious economic game changer across industries and can serve as a discipline that can greatly conserve and protect the world’s natural resources by eliminating waste. Perhaps most importantly of all, however, biomimicry seems to make science more exciting and accessible to younger generations who hold a very fragile global future in their hands.

As a local educator and San Diego Zoo tour guide, I greatly appreciate the efforts of the San Diego Zoo’s Education Department to bring bioinspiration into the mainstream. I was one of those kids who found hard sciences difficult to grasp, turning instead to subjects such as history, politics, and literature to explore topics more related to my daily life. Once I discovered biomimicry, however, I realized science could truly be exciting and make a tangible difference right before my eyes. Not only have Zoo educators learned to make this connection, they also understand that kids are naturally creative and have a unique opportunity to think outside the box as the world rapidly evolves around them; they truly have no limits as to what they think is possible. And because biomimicry requires a collaboration of all disciplines, it becomes an exciting way to think about science (engineering, physics, chemistry, etc.) for those who may not have historically chosen to pursue a career in these fields. Thus, the Zoo has gone to the heart of the underappreciated discipline of science and used the power of biomimicry to bring science to life.

The San Diego Zoo sees biomimicry as a natural extension of the existing school outreach programs. Currently, the Zoo’s Education Department offers a two-hour experience for 4th-through 12th-grade classes focused on bioinspiration, including behind-the-scenes encounters with animals and a private bus tour with a Zoo educator. In addition, a three-hour introductory biomimicry workshop is being offered to high school, college, and other professional educators interested in expanding their knowledge of the field. These workshops can also be tailored to companies interested in creating more sustainable and efficient closed-loop processes and products. This fall, the Education Department plans to implement classroom outreach programs focused on bioinspiration and assist in a science fair competition to be held at the San Diego Zoo’s Beckman Center for Conservation Research. Animals benefit, the environment benefits, and the San Diego Zoo once again fulfills its mission of promoting conservation, saving species, and protecting wildlife.

Chris Arbeene is tour operator/guide and conservation finance intern at the San Diego Zoo.


We Can Learn from Nature

White rhinos are represented in our Frozen Zoo.

Here at the San Diego Zoo, we are uniquely situated to introduce the concept of biomimicry in an engaging, hands-on way using the thousands of species in our collection. Educational programs at the Zoo are teaching and inspiring students, and the expertise of our scientists, curators, horticulturists, veterinarians, and others is helping to guide entrepreneurs, investors, and companies to find sustainable solutions to design problems by looking to the animals and plants right here at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. With all the ways that the Zoo is using biomimicry to change the way that people approach challenges in business, we don’t often stop to think about how biomimicry has impacted our own efforts to conserve endangered species. As it turns out, we have learned a lot about how to conserve nature from nature!

Cryopreservation, the process where cells or whole tissues are preserved by cooling to sub-zero temperatures, is a technique that the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research utilizes daily. After all, we do house the world’s most diverse collection of frozen sperm, egg, and cell lines in a collection we call the Frozen Zoo®! This collection of cells represents more than 700 species of animals, from mammals like rhinos and tigers to reptiles and amphibians. Specimens in the Frozen Zoo can be stored indefinitely and used for procedures such as artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization, embryo transfer, and cloning.

This process of freezing cells to preserve them is pretty complicated! It requires a lot of work protecting the cells first, so that ice crystals won’t form and break open the cell membrane, and our scientists work hard to develop protocols for each animal’s cells. Many animals in nature have their own protocols for surviving at sub-zero temperatures. The wood frog Rana sylvantica is distributed throughout North America, including northeastern Canada and Alaska. As with other species of frogs that live in cold climates and hibernate close to the surface in soil or leaf litter, the wood frog can actually survive freezing! The frog starts storing urea and glucose in its tissues in preparation for winter, where these two compounds act as natural cryoprotectants that reduce ice crystals and osmotic shrinkage of cells.

The larvae of the Alaskan beetle Cucujus clavipes puniceus can survive up to -100 degrees Celsius (-148 degrees Fahrenheit) by using the freeze-avoiding compound glycerol. Our scientists have been able to learn from these “experts” in the field to perfect cryopreservation, thereby ensuring that we will have this indispensable resource for generations to come.

Robin Keith is a senior research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Go Play Outside!


Vaults of Knowledge


cat whiskers

Cat whiskers inspired Zoo architects.

Growing older, occasionally I mull about what my life would be like if I knew in my teens what I know now. Don’t we all? But that is just decades – what if I had thousands of years to make and learn from mistakes and hone my knowledge?  As an architect I have been blessed with many opportunities to marvel at and observe incredibly talented artisans and trades people with a lifetime of knowledge about their specific areas. Many work with several other subcontractors, designers, and engineers to mold and work materials to produce elegant solutions to complex problems in the building industry.

I love nothing more than being a part of a team that produces something extraordinary. It takes millions of conversations and connections with many thousands of people who, in turn, connect with many more thousands. All of their combined knowledge, everyone’s collective decades of experience continually improve upon prior work, an engine harnessing coordinated knowledge. Imagine if we did have the chance to grow for many more thousands of years – what could we build? What exquisite solutions might that knowledge inspire?

The first night in the jungle on a trip to Peru in 2007,  I stayed awake bathed in the sound of heavy, pounding rain all night laying comfortably in bed in a simple but protected open air accommodation. Rain gave way in the early morning hours to hoots from howler monkeys in the surrounding treetops. At daybreak, a long boat fought to transport 20 of us up a swollen river towards deeper jungle. Fighting the river all day, the sun set too early, so the skipper took  a guide on board to sit on the prow of the boat and call back directions to help avoid submerged obstacles. Whole trees, fallen from eroded banks upstream, turned into sluggish torpedoes. I marveled at the power of nature and the swollen brown river as I moved closer to a glimpse of what had only been a dream.

In Peru, I learned that we do indeed have access to knowledge that has been packaged in extraordinary ways, shapes and sizes. Solutions to problems we encounter every day surround us, waiting to be studied and used as inspiration: animals, microscopic organisms, plants… every living, dying, existing natural object and interconnected system. Drawing inspiration or solutions from nature is biomimicry. In the Zoo’s architecture department, we created a new type of barrier based on whiskers, antlers, and antennae which is now used widely throughout other zoos. The San Diego Zoo and Safari Park have enormous vaults of knowledge residing in huge numbers of animal and plant species with staff as guides to help unlock abundant solutions to today’s challenges. We are introducing companies to a new way of looking at solving problems without the past “heat, beat, and treat” mentality of the industrial revolution. We are on the forefront of a gentle collaborative revolution with nature and San Diego is proud to be central in this wondrous way of looking at our charges.

Robyn Badger is a San Diego Zoo Global architect.


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.


Tooth, Claw, and Antibodies

What can we learn from crocodiles and their immune system?

There was once a time in our world, millions of years ago, where trees, plants, insects, and animals grew in much larger proportions. Three-foot-long dragonflies were common; some mammals such as the Columbian mammoth stood 17 to 20 feet tall, and even the small sloth we know today had a relative that stood taller than many modern humans! Gargantuan dinosaurs roamed the land and colossal terrors ruled the waters. Fortunately for us relatively small and frail human beings, many of these prehistoric titans no longer live and breathe, though their descendants live among us. Birds are close relatives to ancient dinosaurs, and the mammals we all know and love are descendants of those that survived the mass extinctions.

However, there are those that have survived the ravages of time. Through meteor impacts, volcanic eruptions, and ice ages they have fought tooth and claw for survival. Among those few there is one creature that has evolved adaptations that make it a fiercely efficient and capable predator: the crocodile.

The crocodile species, it is believed, has survived nearly 200 million years with little change to its biological design. In the modern world, as I’m sure it was those millions of years ago, the crocodile is considered to be an apex predator. Everything in its physiology is built to make it a perfect survivor. As humble humans with only several thousand years of history under our species’ belt, we can ask, “What can we learn from the crocodile?”

The answer lies in the crocodile’s amazing immune system!

Scientists from tropical northern Australia have discovered that, despite gaping wounds and missing limbs due to disputes over territory and food, crocodiles are able to resist dangerous infections while living in aquatic environments filled with microbes. Needless to say, in comparison to our own, a crocodile’s immune system is incredibly powerful. As soon as an infectious intruder enters the bloodstream, the crocodile’s immune system attacks it directly. In the case of bacteria, the antibodies tear it apart lipid by lipid (or capsomere by capsomere in the case of viruses!) These crocodile antibodies have destroyed penicillin-resistant bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus (gold staph) and are even more effective in killing HIV than the human immune system.

The hope is to create a human-friendly version of these powerful antibodies that we may someday take in the form of pills or topical salve. With thousands of people dying from flu- related complications, millions now living with HIV (of which half die after developing AIDS) biomimetic research in the field of medicine offers us a ray of hope. We are always working toward a better, brighter, and cleaner future. Looking to nature’s wonders can help us get there!

Javier Banuelos is a volunteer with the San Diego Zoo’s biomimicry programs. Read his previous post, A Breath of Fresh Air. Learn more about the field of biomimicry.


Biomimicry: City of San Diego Collaboration

Two Arctic foxes sniff out a solution together.

In 2007, we began having conversations with the City of San Diego about the field of biomimicry.  The resulting collaboration with the City of San Diego has been an important foundation for the emergence of this field in San Diego and a wonderful impetus for collaboration, as well.

For our scientists at the Zoo, our business is the science of saving species, and we know that the loss of natural habitat is a major contributing factor threatening biodiversity. The field of biomimicry offers a bridge between the economy and the environment. Biomimicry involves learning from nature and being inspired by nature for new ideas for designs that are sustainable, efficient, and effective.

We have begun to realize that our beautiful Zoo and Safari Park can actually provide inspiration for innovation and growth in the economy. By observing nature, new ideas for efficient and sustainable innovations can replace the old products, processes, and designs from the industrial age. This could be good for the habitat, which in turn is good for the species.

The Zoo has stepped up efforts to share its knowledge of nature and conservation and become more proactive in conversations about innovation and the economy.  All of this led to the conversations with Jacques Chirazi and the City of San Diego about the exciting work the City is doing to make San Diego a hub for clean technology.

In April 2007, Mayor Jerry Sanders announced the formation of the City’s Cleantech Initiative, an effort to promote the expansion and retention of businesses that develop products and technologies that provides environmental sustainable solutions. In 2007 there were a total of 162 cleantech companies in the region; today there are approximately 450 cleantech companies, including more than 190 which are developing or providing renewable energy solutions.

After discussions with the Zoo team, City staff realized that San Diego could play a significant role in promoting this field locally and nationally. San Diego is known in the nation and around the world as a hub for innovations and has prided itself on its biotech, wireless telecommunications, aerospace, cleantech, and other technology clusters.  After several meetings, we realized that San Diego could be a natural fit as a biomimicry hub focusing on commercialization of biomimetic solutions and the design and development of new educational curriculums. For the City of San Diego, supporting the cultivation of biomimicry falls under the Mayor’s Cleantech Initiative. In addition, San Diego Zoo Global is renowned worldwide for its facilities, research, and global conservation efforts, which make the San Diego region uniquely positioned to take a leadership role in this emerging field.

San Diego Zoo Global and the City of San Diego have also been working with other partners (i.e., San Diego State University, University of California, San Diego, Point Loma Nazarene University, University of San Diego, and CONNECT) to increase awareness of biomimicry and help establish San Diego as a leading location for biomimicry development. The City is committed to provide support for the development of biomimicry in San Diego and will continue to work with San Diego Zoo Global and its local partners to make this goal a reality.

Jon Prange is the venture business manager for San Diego Zoo Global; Jacques Chirazi is the program manager for Cleantech, City of San Diego. Read Jon’s previous post, A Prescription for New Ideas.


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.


A Breath of Fresh Air

Imagine a leisurely day spent sitting in a beautiful park, surrounded by nothing more than lush grass, the chirping of birds, and the calming sound of the breeze rustling through the canopies of the trees surrounding you. Though the setting may be man-made, it nevertheless inspires a sense of connection with the natural world and its many wonders. It is those same wonders that offer us opportunities to learn on a daily basis. There is knowledge to be gained in everything from the ant’s work ethic to the simple rustling of leaves in the wind!

Thankfully, the engineers at Cornell University were listening intently to nature’s call.

They have developed a design called Vibro-Wind. It is a frame equipped with 25 pads that, when even a slight breeze passes through them, swing back and forth in a continuous rhythm to create electricity. This energy can then be harnessed to power the needs of an individual building or an entire city. The beauty of this amazing design is that the pads can behave like solar panels in the sense that they can be made small enough to install on rooftops, in parks, and virtually anywhere else there is a bit of space in a densely populated setting.

The next question would be: How does this change anything? Don’t we already have wind turbines hard at work providing green energy?

The problem with modern wind turbine designs is that they are big, noisy, and not to mention dangerous to airborne life forms! Their size prevents them from being viable for installation in urban settings. Even if there were spaces available, once installed many would complain about the noise the turbines produce. Consequently they are installed in undeveloped natural habitats, taking up more land that could be better put to use. Their spinning blades, though engineered to make the most of wind currents to provide maximum energy, pose a threat to any flying creature, further impacting the natural environment.

Cornell University’s Vibro-Wind addresses many of these issues; they are small enough to be installed in cities and suburbs, don’t contribute to noise pollution, are air-critter friendly, and, best of all, they’re inexpensive! It is an excellent example of bio-inspired thinking in action.

Now, don’t let this antagonize wind turbines for you, because in comparison to conventional power plants, their environmental impact is microscopic. Instead, this is meant to shed light on weaknesses in modern green designs so we may continue seeking further ways to improve. So let this be a sign of hope that, though our world is good now, we are still pursuing (and attaining) a better future!

Javier Banuelos is a volunteer with the San Diego Zoo’s biomimicry programs.

Visit the biomimicry section of our Web site.


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.