“Plants are amazing!” This is something I hear a lot from non-botanists. Of course, I know plants are awesome, but every time I turn around, I learn something new and exciting. This semester was no exception. Tasked with a project in my Biomimetic Design class, led by Dr. Petra Gruber, I walked into the meadow to find inspiration– literally.
On a very wet, cold, rainy day in October, I walked to a meadow within our field station property (Bath Nature Preserve, Bath Twp., Akron, Ohio) and found a section to investigate. Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) towering over my head, I decided to stop at 20 steps and set up a 1m x 1m plot to sample. October in a meadow doesn’t give you very much to identify, but goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and Indian grass (S. nutans) were plentiful among a few baby asters, Galium spp. (aka ‘Cleavers’ or ‘Bedstraw’), wild strawberry (Fragaria virginiana),clumps of unidentifiable grass and moss. I measured heights of stems and area covered, took the percent coverage to determine how much each species covered the plot,and took several picture views for record. After returning to campus, I created a hand-drawn schematic of the plot.
A few weeks later, I returned to the same plot. Apparently my methods of counting and direction are spot-on because my last step landed on a pen I had dropped on that rainy day a few weeks earlier! If you’ve ever done field work, you understand how amazing it is that I found a PEN in the middle of a meadow over 2 meters high! This time I was there to measure the ability of the meadow to hold a load. I admit, I didn’t think the stems would hold up… being so late in the year and being dried out. As usual, though, plants are amazing and surprised me yet again!
I decided to test the load by creating a 1m x 1m foam board that was sturdy, yet lightweight. I placed the board directly over the plot, placing flags on each corner. The flags allowed for a visual cue to observe movement of bot
h plants and the board, as well as giving a reference point at which to measure the height of the board after each addition of weight. After the foam board was placed on top of the plants, I measured the height at each corner (flag) for the “initial” height. I added one heavy book and measured the height at each corner. Subsequently, I added increasing weight and measured the heights. At 3 books (6.7kg), the system (the meadow plot) could no longer hold the weight. Because this was the same plants were used over the entire experiment, I believe more weight can be held by the plants in true form.
So how does this happen? Plants are amazing. In the meadow, plants grow up to 10 feet below ground (roots) and above ground. You can imagine how secure this makes these cantilever beams! Here, the Indian grass and Goldenrod grew 1.5m to 2.5m above ground. The stems reached diameters of 2-5mm. You may wonder how the stems did not break when the weight was added. Galileo was the first to record these observations, noting that bending is resisted in the outer layers, not the inner stem as some might think. Several studies have investigated this design, including F.O. Bower (1930) who compared plant stems to concrete, saying, “Ordinary herbaceous plants are constructed on the same principle. The sclerotic strands correspond to the metal straps, the surroundin
g parenchyma with its turgescent cells corresponds mechanically to the concrete.” Equisetum (Horsetail) is another champion plant for many reasons, but here, in this context, it’s a biomechanic superstar. “The hollow stem of Equisetum giganteum owes its mechanical stability to an outer ring of strengthening tissue, which provides stiffness and strength in the longitudinal direction, but also to an inner lining of turgid parenchyma, which lends resistance to local buckling. With a height >2.5 m isolated stems are mechanically unstable. However, in dense stands individual stems support each other by interlacing with their side branches, the typical growth habit of semi-self-supporters.” (Spatz, Kohler, Speck 1998). Again, plants are amazing.
After doing some mathematical calculations (very much estimated
in this case because of the imprecise nature of this ‘experiment’), it is expected that a single Goldenrod stem can support >118% of its biomass! Now, we’re not talking about the strength of steel or lead, but we can see that plants offer us new possibilities when we are designing or constructing new things! Imagine a support feature that is hollow inside and allows for storage in the “stem” as well has having the strength to support weight. Think on a smaller scale: imagine a space in which a stiff, lightweight outer covering is needed to secure something. Imagine the many possibilities that plants offer us to grow using Life’s Principles.
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?
Two weeks to finishing my first academic year, I’m feeling inspired to talk about our course on developing a product using biomimicry; Michael introduced it here. For this course, we worked with students from the Cleveland Institute of Art and Nottingham Spirk. Nottingham Spirk (NS) gave us the problem and some deadlines. Milestones we had were for coming up with areas we’d like to target, developing the concepts, and finally refining our product designs.
What is the first step to go from biology to a product or vice versa? It was a bit messy for me, considering I am also still learning about many biological organisms, but I am pleased with our results and the progress we made.
First, we worked on our target audience, drawing mind maps of stakeholders and key opportunities. We divided into subgroups based on our interest in particular key opportunity areas. There was only one condition: having almost an equal number of Biomimicry Fellows from University of Akron biomimicry and designers from the Cleveland Institute of Art on every team.
And then we started… Not sure how to go about it, we looked at current products, specific issues within our key opportunity area, as well as asknature.org, other books and papers on animal’s adaptaptions. By end of February, we were ready to give a report to NS about the issues we were targeting and organisms that could potentially help us and got their feedback.
Our next step was to develop concepts by end of March. Here, we needed to read more and actually think of a specific problem and solution. I would say, while researching current market, it was not difficult to see where we can introduce new products and what’s missing. The more challenging part was abstracting ideas from biology. We had a format to follow similar to asknature.org: it included writing first the abstracted function, then the strategy the model organism uses and finally extracting design principles. This time NS were more specific on which ideas they were interested in having us pursue and which they were not. Then it was time to form new groups based on the latest product ideas we were moving forward with. Now, for our final work, my team focused on one specific product and our concept looked to many organisms (from ducks to rabbits) for inspiration. Our final report is today. yay!
Couple of things I learned:
– It was wonderful to work in groups of various specialties (mine included industrial designer, polymer scientist, product designer and me)
– Drawing/talking about ideas helped in better grasping the biological function.
– When there is no actual structure to follow, the flexibility lends to creativity.
– Having many groups, it was interesting to see what each team has come up with and inspirations are endless.
– Designers are great in making an idea come alive and look appealing!
– There are many complicated texts in biology for non-biologists, but, knowing what function you’d like to learn about makes it much easier to research and pictures do speak 1000 words.
– I’m more excited today than when I joined the biomimicry degree.
Till next time, Happy Biomimicking!