Conservation Efforts Inspired by Nature
So often we hear people are attracted to biomimicry because it provides hope for the future—it’s an optimistic discipline. We agree! In that spirit of hope, Earth Day is a moment to celebrate the Earth, reflect on how we can help, and then take action.
We often share case studies traditionally applied to product design, but today in celebration of Earth Day, we’re excited to share case studies of a different sort—biomimicry solutions and research applied directly to conservation. We’ve found six fascinating examples that we’re hoping kickstarts your thinking about how else biomimicry can be applied to conservation efforts. What are your plans for celebrating Earth Day today? What questions can you ask nature to help conserve nature?
The robotic fish, SoFi, is controlled by a video game controller in order to unobtrusively study coral reefs so that scientists can gather data on behavior in the natural habitat. The robot mimics the way real fish swim. The soft robotic “muscle” distributes pressure on the skin of the robotic body. Two balloon chambers flow water back and forth, the change in pressure causing the tail to undulate back and forth. The robotic fish blends in to the community, allowing data gathering without influencing the natural behaviors of the reef fish.
This 11-acre park on the campus of Chulalongkorn University in central Bangkok holds flood water via a green roof, wetlands, a detention lawn, and retention pond to help the city store and mitigate the impacts of flooding. Rain is directed into storage tanks, as inspired by an ecosystem engineer, the golden rain tree, which has an extensive root system and branches that also create shade. Additional inspiration for water storage came from cultural stories about “monkey’s cheeks”—an euphemism for how a monkey holds food in its mouth until it needs to eat. The park can hold nearly 1 million gallons of rainwater in reserve.
Inspired by lightweight winged seeds, water-trapping bromeliads, and soil-protecting forest leaf litter, Nucleário offers a smarter, cheaper, and faster approach for large-scale forest restoration by providing innovative biodegradable products proven to reduce seedling maintenance. The Nucleário Planting System nurtures and protects tree seedlings, reducing the need for irrigation, herbicides, and pesticides so that the Atlantic rainforest can be reforested more quickly. Winners of the Biomimicry Design Challenge, they are currently working with the World Wildlife Federation to pilot test their device in the field in Brazil.
A coastal defense system to minimize impacts due to erosion for rising sea levels was inspired by how nature’s tide pools and oyster beds protect shorelines against wave action and storms. ECOncrete designed concrete mats, seawalls, piles, and jackets that mimic the protective habitat of mussels, oysters, and coral. These structures also enhance biological recruitment, allowing nature to assist in coastal resilience projects around the world. The ECO Tide Pool Armor was recognized by the Global Biomimicry Design challenge for outstanding ecological and structural performance. The green concrete integrates by-products and recycled materials, while also reducing carbon emissions. Ultimately the flora and fauna that colonize the sites further sequester carbon.
Farmers in Africa have known for millennia that elephants stay away from their bee hives. Apparently, elephants smell the alarm pheromones guard bees emit when they come close. Researchers have created a formulation that emulates the active part of honey bee warning pheromones to safely repel elephants, and are currently exploring its use in preventing human conflict with other species, such as coyotes and mountain lions.
While many organisms perish in fire, others have learned to avoid fire, adapt to fire, and even become dependent on fire, such as seed cones that only open in the presence of fire. Researchers have posed a variety of designs and policies for communities that can emulate nature to better co-exist with fire. These ideas include placing critical infrastructure underground just as some organisms use burrows to avoid fire and some plants translocate critical resources to roots for reserves post-fire. Other ideas include creating escape routes and enabling transportation networks to give firefighters access while allowing residents to flee, emulating animals that avoid fire. The full paper describes a plethora of nature-inspired strategies.
What conservation efforts are happening in a habitat near you? Might they similarly be enhanced in their abilities to conserve by learning from nature? What questions should we ask the locals? Hopefully these case studies will inspire you to ask probing questions and help bring biomimicry to this critically important work. Happy Earth Day!