Learning from the Ocean’s Designers


When you think about it, evolution does a pretty incredible job of finding more efficient ways to enable the survival of a species, especially considering it isn’t a conscious or directed process. The act of simply making incremental changes—over a long enough time frame—has created structures as complex as the eye of a mantis shrimp, the self-aware human brain, and unfortunately, the French poodle.

Organisms have to be efficient, otherwise they won’t survive. Humans and the species we have domesticated are the obvious exception. We’ve beaten ‘survival of the fittest’, thanks to our oversized brains and ability to think critically. Undomesticated organisms don’t have that luxury, and must depend on any edge they can to hunt, hide, feed, or mate. A slight advantage over the rest of their species means the difference between passing their genes—including the ones responsible for the advantage—onto their offspring and becoming an evolutionary dead end.

So, why do we care? We’re humans, right? We’ve been to the moon, invented the microchip, and created the culinary masterpiece that is the orange Skittle. What could we possibly learn from nature that we couldn’t figure out on our own?

Unsurprisingly, the answer is “quite a helluva a lot”. It turns out that while nature was spending millions of years figuring out how to minimize the amount of energy it takes to survive, it also created quite a few incredible chemical compounds, physical characteristics, and structural designs to make our lives better, stuff that we may eventually have figured out, given enough resources, time, and brain power.

Fortunately we’re not above learning from nature and using that knowledge to improve humankind. The process of taking inspiration from nature to solve human problems is known as “biomimicry”. The opportunities for using biomimicry are as diverse as the ecosystems the innovations are drawn from, applying to everything from engineering to architecture, medicine to agriculture.   

Let’s look at a few of my favorites:

Building a better windmill, courtesy of the humpback whale. 

Whales are really good at swimming. You’d have to be right, to hold your breath for hours at a time while pushing tons of flesh through the water in search of prey? A research team from Harvard investigated the humpback whale and discovered that the shape and angle of the whale’s flippers, including a bumpy, scalloped ridge along the fin, reduced drag by nearly a third. This reduces the energy the whale needs to move through the water.

Humpback Whales (c) Swanson Chan

Every discovery needs an economic incentive to move from the drawing board to reality. In this case, companies have already used this research to create new wind turbine blades with nearly double the efficiency of a traditional, smooth-edged blade.

Stronger materials, thanks to the rainbow mantis shrimp.

Mantis shrimps are easily one of my favorite marine animals. Aside from their incredibly complex eyes, they have the hilariously grumpy behaviors of an old man muttering to himself as he putters around his lawn. The rainbow mantis shrimp also hunts with a club-shaped appendage that literally boils the water around it as it smacks the living daylights out of unsuspecting shellfish. Needless to say, this is not something you keep in an aquarium, unless you enjoy cleaning water and glass out of your carpets.

Scientists have analyzed the materials and structures of the shrimp’s club to see how it survives the incredible stress of repeated impacts over the shrimp’s life. As it turns out, both the composition of the club’s materials and the unique, gently spiraling pattern they’re laid out in are responsible for the club’s durability and strength. These discoveries have the potential to create stronger, long-lasting materials for everything we use in our daily lives. Thanks shrimpy!

Mantis Shrimp (c) Dorothea Oldani

Colorful, colorful corals.

Corals! Who doesn’t love them? From their incredible reef-building abilities to their amazing diversity of colors; they’re the reason I got into diving.  There’s a protein created by some corals—possibly as a natural defense against sunburn, but scientists aren’t sure yet—that may someday be incorporated into the molecules of fibers that are used in textiles. 

This would give us the ability to make colorful textiles that don’t require harmful or toxic dyes, and that won’t pollute the environment when the textiles reach the end of their wearable life.

These are only a few examples of the ways that biomimicry can improve our daily lives. Just imagine what else might be hiding out there under the waves, just waiting to be discovered. Maybe even a better flavor of Skittle, who knows?


by Guest Blogger, Chad Koll

Chad Koll has a masters degree from Scripps Institution of Oceanography and works for Scuba Schools International as their International Product Manager. He also serves on the Board of Directors for Mother of Corals.

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