Putting the ‘Ph’ in PhD

To earn a PhD, a student must make an original contribution to his or her field of study. The novelty requirement can channel the student into a highly specialized research area. Whether measuring propulsion pressures produced when penguins poop or the effect of cocaine on honey bee dance behavior, to borrow some EXTREME examples, it’s important to periodically climb out of the rabbit hole and pause for philosophical reflection. For students specializing in biomimicry, this means asking:

  • What does a world built through biomimetic innovation look like?
  • Does the biomimicry community have a shared vision for the future?
  • If so, what mode of inquiry will help us achieve that shared vision?

We are pioneers in this field, and as such, have a responsibility to contribute to its philosophical development.

I recently made a modest contribution to the philosophical development of biomimicry via a publication in Global Built Environment Review. The article, titled “Biomimetic Buildings: The Emerging Future of Architecture,” is open access. You can download it here.  In the article, I try to develop coherent responses to common criticisms of biomimicry, which stem from philosophical misunderstandings. See abstract below.

Biomimicry is sustainable innovation inspired by Earth’s diverse life forms which, thanks to billions of years of evolutionary refinement, embody high-performance, resource-efficient design solutions. Dismissing large potential ecological and economic returns associated with biomimicry, critics argue the approach 1) diminishes the role of the human designer; 2) relies on suboptimal models due to evolutionary incrementalism; 3) demands humans repress their impulse to build; and 4) depletes architecture of human meaning. The purpose of this article is to defend the merits of biomimicry by revealing how poorly founded these assertions are. Each is based on an outdated paradigm that we must shed in order to nurture a new era of architecture.

Let me know what you think of the article in the comment section!

GoatMan Quarterly – Special Issue

This year’s Biology Ig Nobel Prize goes to an interesting human being who wanted to take a break living as a human and instead live as a goat. In a very literal interpretation of bio-inspiration, Tom Thwaites zoomorphed into a goat with the assistance of custom-made goat prosthetics, which included hooves and a chest-attached rumen, to live amongst a herd of goats in the Alps for three days. His motivation was to simply shun modern living and appreciate living in the very moment – an often-elusive trait in the today’s world.


You most likely won’t see this type of research coming out of Akron unless Bill decides to weave a giant web and live like a spider, but that would most likely freak people out more than a human-goat. If anything, we certainly have a great appreciation for bio-inspired improbable research.


To read more, see Tom Thwaites website, BBC News, or for a more in-depth look at living like a goat, you can purchase the book: GoatMan: How I Took a Holiday from Being Human.


Biomimicry Projects at ESA

For several years the European Space Agency (ESA) has been working on biomimicry projects for space applications. Everyone interested in space-related science and biomimicry should take a look at the project website of the ESA’s Advanced Concept Team. Here I will try to summarize some of the projects that, in my opinion, are the most interesting ones to mention. For more projects and details take a look at the official website of ESA.


Due to long travel times in space, closed-cycle life support systems are required that could be optimized by lowering the astronaut’s energy consumption. The researchers at ESA are therefore trying to learn more about hibernation in animals to see whether these principles can eventually be applied to astronauts on long term space missions in order to lower their consumption of air, water and food. Hibernating animals such as hedgehogs or the arctic ground squirrel are very interesting models to learn more about the mechanisms of hibernation in nature. For instance, the arctic ground squirrel is able to set its body temperature to 32° F (freezing point) during winter. Scientists are still not sure how the arctic ground squirrel can hibernate at such low temperatures but they believe that the so-called A1 adenosine receptor plays an important role in this. For more details take a look at this recently published article in the Washington Post.

Jumping spider vision:

Some jumping spiders are known to have the best vision among invertebrates. This vision aids them during hunting expeditions when the distance of the prey has to be estimated accurately. Therefore, jumping spiders only use one lens with several photoreceptor layers. Light can only be focused on one of the two deepest layers. When light is focused on one of the two deepest layers the image appears blurry on the other layer. It is expected that the amount of blurriness on the one receptor layer is used for depth estimation. A closer look at this blur-to-distance mapping mechanism could inspire depth-from-defocus (DFD) computer vision algorithms useful for distance sensors used in autonomous spacecraft descent, for example. Other application fields could be optical sensors for formation flying and swarm behavior. Such a system could also be used to assist other existing technologies such as SONAR. Since only one lens plus sensors would be required it is expected that such a system would be very energy efficient and last a long time since no mechanical parts are involved in the design.

Tracking of perceptual saliency:

In space robots usually take large amounts of images that have to be sent to ground stations for analysis. The large distance between the robot and the unit analyzing the collected images causes transmission delays. Thus, a real-time analysis is not possible. Also, the storage of large amounts of high definition images might cause data storage problems. Therefore, it would be helpful if the robot itself could evaluate the scientific content of an image taken. Algorithms have to be developed that let the robot identify interesting features in images. Therefore, the robot could be trained using human gaze data collected though an eye tracker. This would allow the robot to learn to take a look at surroundings as if through a human eye.

Further ongoing projects as well as interesting past projects are summarized on the official website of the ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team.

An ecologist’s critique of two concepts of biomimicry

Vincent Blok and Bart Gremmen published an article in the January 2016 Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics titled “Ecological Innovation: Biomimicry as a New Way of Thinking and Acting Ecologically”.  In the article, Blok and Gremmen distinguish and reflect on two concepts of biomimicry. The authors identify a strong, but simplistic, concept of biomimicry that eschews the industrial revolution’s characteristics of domination and exploitation of nature in favor of learning and exploration. Janine Benyus’s philosophy of a second biomimetic industrial revolution and McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle design are examples of this strong concept of biomimicry.  The authors sum up the strong concept as nature is seen as an engineer that has 3.8 billion years of research and development experience and biomimicry is imitation of nature’s models to solve human problems. The weaker and more sophisticated model was developed by Joanna Aizenberg and does not consist of duplication of natural systems, but as inspiration from nature to abstract function, structure, and processes for creative solutions.

The authors critique the strong concept of biomimicry driven by Benyus’ philosophy by identifying three problematic presuppositions.  Their first point is that the strong concept has a strict distinction between copying natural principles and invention.  The authors take an Aristotelian perspective and claim that mimesis includes perfecting what nature is not capable of producing itself.   The authors also critique that natural systems are not fully accessible and understood and limit our capability to copy nature’s models to solve technological problems.  The last presupposition is that nature is complex and temperamental and humans translate and interpret natural phenomena as the standard for ecological health to explore application to technological problems.  Since the resulting technology has been filtered through human understanding, the authors question if the resulting technology is truly ethically right.  The authors feel that the weaker concept of biomimicry is less problematic but does not distinguish between exploitive and dominating technology verses explorative and ecologically ethical technology.

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La Plata Armadillo (Tolypeutes matacus)



Rebecca Eagle-Malone holds “Chaco” the La Plata Armadillo. Evening reception, NASA and OAI Biomimicry Summit.

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.


Hairy Armadillo has a soft carapace. Photo courtesy of Smithsonian

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.


Tolypeutes matacus is the only species that can roll into a complete ball. Photo courtesy of Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

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?

Drilling evolutionary theories from primitive technology

In Cats’ Paws and Catapults (1998), Steven Vogel compares the mechanics of nature and human technology. He acknowledges the crucial differences between these two “schools of design,” but still draws attention to a list of similar factors shaping and constraining both innovation processes. For instance, he mentions incremental progress as being a common feature:

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Fossil Doesn’t Equal Failure

Hi all, Thanks again for tuning in. I recently had the opportunity to speak at the first annual national biomimicry forum and education summit. The following is a transcript of the talk I gave including some of the associated imagery. Hope you all enjoy Fossil Doesn’t Equal Failure: Continue reading