The twentieth in a series of AskNature Nuggets.
Ep. 20: How Does Nature Protect Itself?
Have you ever heard of a pangolin? No, I’m not mispronouncing penguin! I’m talking about the mammal that looks like a scaly anteater.
The most striking characteristic of the pangolin is its scales, which grow throughout its life just like human hair, and overlap like the scales of this pinecone.
Pangolins don’t have teeth and they can’t move very quickly, so they rely on their scales to protect themselves against predators and the biting ants that are their food source. When threatened, this unusual mammal will curl up into a ball with its overlapping scales acting like armor. The scales are sharp, which provide an extra defense, and once curled, it’s nearly impossible to force the pangolin to unwind.
The pangolin’s scales are a perfect example of flexibility and durability combined, which are highly desirable traits in human-made designs, such as in packaging or roofing. In fact, the pangolin has already inspired one company to create a backpack with retractable layers that mimics the mammal’s scales. Can you think of a product or design that the pangolin can inspire?
NOTE: Thanks to Noah Nipperus of Tempe, Arizona for suggesting we do a Nugget on the pangolin. If you’d like to suggest an organism, please post your ideas on our facebook page: facebook.com/biomimicry38institute
The nineteenth in a series of AskNature Nuggets.
Ep. 19: How Does Nature Upcycle?
If you check under the eaves of your home or garage, you might notice that paper wasps have been busy building nests. Through wind, rain, and snow, those nests provide a sturdy and waterproof home for wasp colonies. But how are they made at from what materials? Sherry Ritter, one of our favorite biologists at the design table, explains.
This is a paper wasp’s nest. I find these fascinating not only because they’re beautiful but because they’re actually just made out of cellulose (or chewed up wood) and saliva. Now the wasp uses a saliva that has a lot of protein in it and that protein mixed with the cellulose creates a water insoluble but also waterproof covering.
Now, it’s interesting that in rainy environments, they actually use more protein in their saliva in order to make it more waterproof. And because protein is pretty expensive from a wasp’s standpoint because they have to go get more insects to get more protein, they’re only going to use it if they really need it. So if this is in a dry environment or protected from overhead, they’re not going to use as much protein.
So I’m wondering if we can use this idea to make non-toxic, waterproof paper or other biodegradable materials. (Holds up honeycomb) And in case you wondered, this is what the inside of the nest looks like… but that’s another story.
Ep. 23: How Does Nature Handle Tension?
If you sleep 10+ hours a day while suspended in a tree, you're going to be dealing with a lot of tension. No, we're not talking emotional turmoil but structural tension. Most organisms would buckle under the pressure of hanging for an entire lifetime, but not the sloth. Let's learn from nature's most fascinating creature that does very little to earn that title: the sloth.
At first glance sloths seem lazy, slow and do nothing but sleep. But there’s more to them than meets the eye. In a display of mutualism, their dirty fur hosts an ecosystem of algae and other organisms who, in return, help camouflage the sloth in its lush, green surroundings. They also participate in a closed loop system by spending one day each week climbing to the base of their tree to defecate, thereby fertilizing their own food source.
And while sloths are incredibly slow on land, they are well adapted to quickly in a tree. This is because their curved spine copes well with tension rather than compression. This is a design we already use in suspension bridges like Portland’s St. Johns Bridge. How else could architects and engineers find inspiration in the sloth’s uncanny ability to just… hang out?