Plant Biomimicry: Thigmotropism
Rebecca Eagle, November 13, 2017
Over the past three years in our program, I’ve had many opportunities to converse with interested folks about the wonders of plants. Plants do some pretty miraculous things, no doubt. At the very core of their existence, they are required to survive ‘in place’. How many other living organisms on Earth can claim this feat? Very, very few things can accumulate life’s requirements (reproduction and resource acquisition), without movement. Not to mention, plants also must adapt to local conditions: contamination, weather, drought/flooding events, and more. While animals, insects, and birds can move when their environment gets unfavorable, plants must shelter in place and utilize strategies that they’ve evolved over the millennia of time they’ve been on this planet.
A favorite plant of many inquisitors of plant biomimicry is the Venus Fly Trap (Dioneae muscipula). Why wouldn’t someone
admire this plant?! It eats meat, but cannot move from place because it lacks musculature and because it needs to stay rooted in the ground to obtain water, minerals, and necessary stability to stay erect. Many are surprised to learn that this insectivore is native to our own United States, found chiefly in wetlands of the Carolinas. Let’s discuss the biology of the Venus flytrap, and then talk about its inspiration for design applications.
The Venus Fly Trap lives in nutrient-poor wetland soils, particularly low in nitrogen and phosphorus. Plants require these elements and all plants have strategies that allow them to acquire them from their environments—sometimes in very unique ways! Remember, though, that plants can’t move. They rely on things that are accessibly near them. Soil and the atmosphere being the mediums for most plants, cannot be relied on by the Venus flytrap. This constraint doesn’t faze it! Other organisms come to plants, right? Aphids, pollinators, nectarivores, and other critters visit plants for meals of all cuisines (vegetation and nectar), and this carnivorous plant evolved to capture the nutrients and energy from these insects to ensure its survival throughout time! (The first written documentation of the Venus Fly Trap was noted in 1760 in North Carolina, by North Carolina Colonial Governor Arthur Dobbs ). A question I am frequently asked is whether the plant does photosynthesis. Yes, the Venus flytrap does have the same anatomy and physiology required to be in the Kingdom Plantae. It is not uncommon to hear that they rely solely on insects for nutrients, but this is not true. Insects are merely the back-up mechanism for the minerals that a play would obtain from the soil, not the CO2 or sunlight energy obtained above ground.
We get it, the Venus flytrap eats insects for nutrients… but how? (Video: 4-minute YouTube video of Venus flytrap in action). When a larger-sized insect (flies, ants, spiders, grasshoppers, i.e.), lands on the inside of the leaf blade, the weight of it will eventually trigger minute hairs. These trigger hairs will respond (0.1 second response time), by closing the trap. Ideally, the prey will be inside, but, as you can see in the suggested video, this mechanism is not fail-safe. As is in nature and life, sometimes we lose the game.
The response of the trigger hairs is an example of a nastic movement and thigmotropism. Thigmotropism is the act of responding to the direct stimulus of touch, such as a fly landing on the inner leaf blade and bumping into one of the two or three trigger hairs. Nastic movements are controlled by hormones, more so than by a direct stimulus. Once the direct stimulus causes the thigmotrophic response, auxin (a plant hormone) stimulates cell expansion as a rapid growth response. In short, the cells inside the leaf of the Venus flytrap are told to swell up quickly, which causes the leaf blades to close. This is the same physiological response and movement that is witnessed when a flower of an angiosperm plant opens and closes in response to light! (As an aside, auxin does some pretty rad things in plants that I encourage you all to read about in your down time!).
Bio-inspiration from the Venus Flytrap
How could we not be inspired by this amazing plant?! I’ve talked in previous posts about some possible applications for designs based on the mechanisms of the Venus flytrap: baby gates, pet gates, sensors for factories, sensors for home safety, etc. I won’t rehash that conversation. The general idea involved here is the passive sensing with quick response that uses only clean energy.
While the response mechanism is certainly worthy of investigating, I would add in the importance of Life’s Principles as an additional means of bio-inspiration from the Venus flytrap. If we consider the rationale involved in utilizing insects for survival, we witness the ability of this natural organism to obtain its needs from the local environment in absence of the preferred mechanism for sequestration. As far as I know, the Venus flytrap isn’t shipping in her flies and spiders from the west coast. She has found a way to survive and thrive with what is near to and available to her. She is substituting a necessary product for another locally obtained product. She carefully considered her choices and chose to adapt and evolve, rather than die.
Of course I am getting a bit anthropomorphic here, but my goal is to encourage companies to look at the bigger picture of what is important to the planet, to its business, and to its customers. The amount of money and natural resources that are invested in product development could, perhaps, be re-evaluated to better meet the needs of the business by responsibly utilizing local supplies, rather than shipping them into the area. The re-evaluation might discover that the location of the business itself is better suited to be near the customers it most services—avoiding the strain of shipping far distances.
As I leave you, to spend more time preparing for my upcoming comprehensive exams, I would like to mention this quote I read in Botany for Gardeners (Capon, 1990). The preface of the quote describes the means by which antifreeze was developed, inspired by ‘leaf antifreeze’ (increasing the concentration of sugars in the protoplasm to lower the freezing point inside the cells). “Plants have been ahead of human invention by several million years.” Consider this as coming from a 1990’s book for gardeners, not for engineers, designers, or biomimicry-enthusiasts. This is written by someone who just appreciates plants for the value they bring to all of us in such a variety of ways. I encourage all of you to continue to read about the wonders of plants and be inspired by all the great things they do… all without leaving home!
The habitat of the Venus flytrap is limited to a small area of the Carolinas. Modern development threatens this already minuscule area with increasing take-over. Consider visiting the website of The Nature Conservancy to learn more about the plant that Charles Darwin has called “the most wonderful plant in the world.”1
 The Nature Conservancy, accessed November 13, 2017. https://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/northamerica/unitedstates/northcarolina/explore/venus-flytrap-brochure.pdf?redirect=https-301
 Capon, Brian. (1990). Botany for Gardeners: An Introduction and Guide. Portland, OR: Timber Press. pp. 86.
Earlier this month, August 2016, I had the privilege of leading an evening reception for the NASA and OAI Biomimicry Summit in Cleveland, Ohio. (OAI = Ohio Aeronautical Institute). A group of 60 attendees gathered inside the Primates, Cats, and Aquatics Building of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo as we engaged in a discussion of Biomimicry in Your Backyard. I selected three common backyard critters to demonstrate how easy it is to find inspiration in the spaces around us every day: La Plata Armadillo, Eastern Box Turtle, and Children’s Python. This week’s blog will feature our one and only “Chaco” the La Plata Armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus).
As we’ve discussed before, biomimicry is accomplished by two possible methods: 1) Start with a question and look to nature for a solution, or 2) Start with an inspiring organism and discover what problems can be solved using that particular structure or behavior. Working in the zoo setting, I typically start with the latter. Whether I am preparing for our Biomimicry/Ecophysiology class within our Advanced Inquiry Program through Miami University of Ohio and Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, answering a question from one of our educators while preparing a program, or speaking at an event for Great Lakes Biomimicry, this is the case. I am given an animal and I start my research. My starting point is generally: What makes this organism unique? It is in this uniqueness that inspiration jumps out at you! I encourage all of you to try this any time you have a moment outdoors to think. It is really amazing what a person can dream up once the trigger is pulled. We will start at this point with our armadillo inspiration.
What makes an armadillo unique? Particularly, the La Plata Armadillo? I would play the Jeopardy music in the background, but I don’t think it will take you that long to come up with the answer: the carapace. The scutes are hard dermal bone with keratin—very similar to a tortoise shell. La Plata, also commonly called the 3-banded armadillo, has a shoulder plate and hip plate with dermal hinges to allow flexibility. This is the only species of armadillo that is able to roll into a complete ball, courtesy of a head plate and armored tail. The Hairy Armadillo (Chaetophractus vellerosus) contrastingly, has a soft outer shell.
The carapace offers several advantages. Most obviously, perhaps, is protection. The La Plata Armadillo is nearly impenetrable when he rolls into a ball. The only predator that could possibly open this shell needs to have opposable thumbs. However, even with this advantage, most predators would find the benefit (food) is not worth the cost (time) it takes to open. It also offers fortification measures by pinching the opposition in its hinges.
Another advantage of the carapace for this dweller of arid environments is thermal regulation. While all armadillos live in regions with temperatures between 92-97°F, the La Plata Armadillo can survive even hotter climates. One might think the shell would keep heat trapped inside the body, but the dermal hinges serve as climate control, allowing for air flow between the hinges.
Lastly, all armadillos have this really cool ability to travel across water. How?! They can hold their breath for really long periods of time. This allows them to walk on the bottom of riverbeds and waterways. What if they don’t want to walk? Like other mammals, they can suck in air and float across the water! Nothing can stop these guys from getting to the other side!
So I ask … what does the armadillo inspire in you?