How wildlife inspires modern design

From shark skin to gecko feet, discover the ways in which animals are influencing scientists and engineers.

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1. Shark’s skin = swimsuits

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Sharkskin is festooned with tiny toothlike structures called dermal denticles, which reduce drag. Speedo used this principle in the Fastskin swimsuits that dominated competitive swimming until they were banned in 2009. But we now know that the teeth only work in conjunction with a shark’s baggy skin, and the swimsuits’ benefits came from their tight fit creating a streamlined profile and efficient blood flow to the muscles. New-generation fabrics are now being developed, though, that allow the synthetic denticles to work their magic.

2. Tardigrades = preservation

When times are tough, water bears, or tardigrades, shut down their metabolism and exist in a dehydrated state called a tun, which survives boiling, freezing, radiation and even the vacuum of space. Part of their secret is to replace the water in their cells with a sugar called trehalose, which protects their internal machinery. Several companies are exploring how trehalose could preserve delicate medical compounds in challenging conditions.

3. Geckos = Velcro 

A gecko’s powerful cling exploits the tiny forces of attraction between atoms that are very close together. To achieve the closest possible contact, their feet have millions of hairs, which subdivide into many tinier ones – about a billion in all. Breaking the bonds simply requires changing the angle of contact. Scientists have replicated this system in a tape that can be used repeatedly with no loss of stickiness.

4. Lotus flower = building sprays and coatings

The water-repellent and self-cleaning properties of India’s national flower rely on a combination of the leaves’ microscopic surface structure and a waxy secretion that causes water to coalesce into droplets that roll away picking up dust, dirt and bacteria as they go. This has inspired sprays and coatings for building materials, textured glazings for solar panels and aircraft exteriors, and biomedical devices.

5. Owl feathers and kingfisher’s beak = Japan’s bullet train

Japan’s 500 Series Shinkansen bullet train was found to be too noisy during testing. The solutions were ornithologically inspired, tweaking some elements of the design to mimic the edges of an owl’s flight feathers, and remodelling the train’s ‘nose’ so that it resembled the beak of a kingfisher.

6. Termite mount = office block

Melbourne’s CH2, or Council House 2, opened in 2006. The building was constructed to be as environmentally friendly as possible – its heating, ventilation and cooling system was based on the structure of a termite mound.

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Stuart Blackman