Biomimicry: The Search for Brilliant Design

The West Chester University Professor of Biology, Frank E. Fish, was vacationing along New England's coast frequented by magnificent humpbacked whales. While browsing in a gift shop one day he couldn't help but notice a gifted sculptor’s rendition of one of the splendid creatures and commented to the shop owner that the artist had put bumps on the wrong side of the pectoral fin. The bumps should be on the trailing edge. As director of the Liquid Life Lab at West Chester University and world-renowned expert in fluid dynamics, Fish knew that the leading edge of fins and swimming structures needed to be sleek and smooth in order to reduce drag [1]. Yet the artist had made the leading edge of the fin on this sculpture bumpy and rough. The gift shop owner assured Fish that, in fact, the art-work was a real-to-life rendition and no mistake. This head-scratcher for Fish proved to be the first step in a journey that would lead to an intensive research effort, a partnership with Dr. Phil Watts and others, as well as patents for a much improved design for fan blades and wind turbine blades all having bumps on their leading edge. In fact, the technology boost gave rise to a whole new company called "WhalePower" with the tag line, "Building the energy future on a million years of field tests". I will say more about the “million years of field tests” later.

Fish and Watts now work in a fast growing discipline called biomimetics – that is –carefully studying biological systems to discover designs and processes to make things work better and do things with less environmental impact. It is in reality a form of reverse engineering where one takes things apart to learn how they work. The word biomimetics is a moniker coined by an electrophysiologist Otto Schmitt in the 1950’s which made its debut in one of his five 1969 publications. [2] But biomimetics (mimicking life) has a long history. Anyone using a design or a process inspired by nature is in fact using biomimetics.

Even as a child, Otto Schmitt was truly gifted, a genius with things electrical. Because of his brilliance, at the age of 17, before completing high school, he was accepted as a student in his hometown’s Washington University, St. Louis. And by the time he graduated with a BS with majors in Zoology and Physics, he had 8 publications to his name. His research focused on studying the electrical conduction of nerve impulses and then designing electronic circuitry to match. Undoubtedly, his most useful contribution to society and technology was the Schmitt trigger, widely used in this digital age. The young Otto continued his studies, earning a Ph.D. from the same institution, which launched him into a career of continued inventions, publications (228), and patents (41) both in academia and in the military. Whether designing electrical circuits, or building a better submarine detector, Schmitt based much of his work on inspiration or instruction from nature’s designs, biomimetics.

As noted, Schmitt and Fish are innovators/inventors. And inventors are a fascinating lot. They are always solving problems, trying to make things work better. As usual, there are design tradeoffs even in a seemingly simple blade. The blade needs to be light enough to respond to a gentle breeze but strong and heavy enough to withstand strong gusts. Blades need to resist stalling when the angle of the wind gets too steep and, when they do stall, they need to stall gradually because stalling is typically violent and destructive. When you take time to consider even the simple design of a fan blade, there is much to think about. Because of all the variables involved, the final design is nearly always a compromise.

When Fish and Watts tested leading edge protuberances on the blades of fans, turbines, and even airplane wings, bumps inspired by those seen on the leading edge of the humpback whale, they found huge improvements in performance and stall characteristics. Incidentally the humpback whale’s scientific name Megaptera novaeangliae (Latin for big-winged New Englander) refers to the unusually long pectoral fins, the largest and only whale pectoral fins with bumps or tubercles. This whale is also the only one to use aggressive changes [3] in direction during bubble netting for krill and small fish. The leading edge tubercles of the pectoral fins must give them more maneuverability. Whale-inspired blade improvements are still being optimized but are already showing up as quieter more efficient industrial fans, computer fans and wind generators, although not in airplane wings yet.

Speaking of airplanes, the history of flight has benefited greatly from close scrutiny of nature’s flyers. In his circa 1505 “Codex on the Flight of Birds” artist and engineer Leonardo da Vinci is known to have studied birds while designing flying machines. None of the designs that he built was successful. But with continued study of wing structure of birds and their engineering know how, the Wright brothers achieved that success late in 1903. That was only because these brothers were persistent, were tireless experimenters who kept careful records, were bright and innovative, and kept safety as a high priority. They are credited with doing the “first sustained, controlled, powered, heavier-than-air manned flight”.

Besides aviation (the very word pays homage to Avis (or Avice), the Latin name for birds) and fan blades, and electronic circuits, there are literally thousands of inventions in the biomimetics inventory – inventions or strategies inspired by biological systems. Some of the best publicized include Velcro, paints that resist dirt, bullet trains with long tapered nosecones, buildings designed like termite mounds for cooling, hard fracture-resistant materials, strong fibers, better valves, stronger adhesives, faster swimsuits – you get the idea, the list goes on and on. Check out photos and videos of many of these inventions in the web section below.

Now, I have some observations and comments concerning the “millions of years of field tests” and the “brilliant” designs. It seems that scientists have overlooked the obvious need for intelligence in the origin of such systems. First, the appearance of design is obvious and universally recognized. Listen to Janine Benyus as she writes on page 6 in her Biomimicry book.

“Our most clever architectural struts and beams are already featured in lily pads and bamboo stems. Our central heating and air-conditioning are bested by the termite tower’s steady 86 degrees F. Our most stealthy radar is hard of hearing compared to the bat’s multifrequency transmission. And our new “smart materials” can’t hold a candle to the dolphin’s skin or the butterfly’s proboscis. Even the wheel, which we always took to be a uniquely human creation, has been found in the tiny rotary motor that propels the flagellum of the world’s most ancient bacteria.” [4]

And again from page 132 Dr. Benyus writes about spider’s silk:

“Compared ounce to ounce with steel, dragline silk is five times stronger, and compared to Kevlar (found in bulletproof vests), it’s much tougher–able to absorb five times the impact force without breaking. Besides being very strong and very tough, it also manages to be highly elastic, a hat trick that is rare in any one material. If you suspend increasingly heavy weights from a steel wire and a silk fiber of the same diameter, their breaking point is about the same. But if a gale force wind blows, the strand of silk (five times lighter in weight) will do something the steel never could–it will stretch 40 percent longer than its original length and bounce back good as new.”

Second, the preponderance of the biomimicry literature assumes that nature’s brilliant designs and earth friendly, non-polluting, sustainable processes arose by means of naturalistic evolution over long periods of time. In fact, one of the most celebrated web portals is This site is titled Biomimicry 3.8 to commemorate the 3.8 Billion years of nature’s experimentation.

Here is a quote from the “About” page.

“In nature, if a design strategy is not effective, its carrier dies. Nature has been vetting strategies for 3.8 billion years. Biomimicry helps you study the successful strategies of the survivors, so you can thrive in your marketplace, just as these strategies have thrived in their habitat.” [5]

And here is another quote from Yoseph Bar-Cohen, an articulate spokesperson for biomimetics.

“The evolution of nature over 3.8 billion years led to the highly effective and power efficient biological mechanisms. Imitating these mechanisms offers enormous potentials for the improvement of our life and the tools we use.”
. . .
“Nature is the largest laboratory that ever existed and ever will and in its evolution it tested every field of science and engineering leading to inventions that work well and. [Sic] Nature has “experimented” with various solutions to its challenges and has improved the successful solutions. . . . through evolution nature, or biology, has experimented with the principles of physics, chemistry, mechanical engineering, materials science, mobility, control, sensors, and many other fields that we recognize as science and engineering.” [6]

Third, in addition to the incomprehensibly long periods of time alleged, there was experimentation and selection of what worked. And it not only works, but it is brilliant design -- elegant design.

Listen to Dr. Alex Chin talking about photosynthesis:

“Biology has evolved phenomenally subtle systems to funnel light energy around and channel it to the right places. It has also become incredibly good at building tiny devices that work with high efficiency, and at replicating them millions of times.” [7]

And another typical piece titled Brilliant Bio-Design from the webecoist:

“Surveillance cameras flap their wings in the sky just like birds and bats. Tiny little hairs on gecko feet help a robot climb a smooth vertical surface. The impact-resistant surface of human teeth inspires light and durable aerospace materials. Just like designs inspired by the sea, insect-mimicking inventions and buildings that look like natural terrain, these 14 examples of biomimicry based on animal and human biology capitalize on the unparalleled efficiency of nature.” [8]

When I read these pieces, I have to admit, my heart swells with appreciation, and worship for a Creator who thought about and crafted this obviously unparalleled, brilliant, phenomenal stuff being described. At every level that I choose to study, I see spectacular order and unfathomable intricacy in structure as well as sustainable, earth friendly, cyclic, interactive, other-serving, processes from the nano scale to the macro scale and even the mega scale. And the inescapable fact is that everybody, no matter their faith position, recognizes and appreciates the incredible designs and sustainable processes. When one chooses to study biological systems closely, they always come away stunned by their beauty and the elegance.

Unquestionably, biomimetics is an exciting and fertile field of study. The enthusiasm is palpable throughout the biomimetics literature. I have great respect for the brilliant engineers and biomimetic biologists who are busy reverse engineering a biological system. The work is hard. The complexities are so great that there is no way to get to the bottom of any story. So they are left with fragments if you will; fragments that are discoverable, fragments that are understandable. They work with bits and pieces that are humanly reproducible components of nature’s elegant structures or processes. And with those discoveries, they help to solve human problems, making life both easier and greener.

I wonder sometimes how they feel. Reverse engineering a system usually implies that someone has been there and done that way ahead of you. In this case the elegant system was supposedly created through mindless blind chance processes over unimaginably long periods of time. Is this the case of a thinker learning from the mindless? In either case it leaves the scientist playing catch up. Either someone was smarter and faster, or the endless chance process got there first. I wonder if they ever see the tell-tale fingerprints of the Deity.

Every time I return to Job 12:7-13, it sounds to me like the language of biomimetics. Could the science of biomimetics date back that far? Listen to Job and see if this doesn’t sound like Janine Benyus or Yoseph Bar-Cohen “ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you.” I ask you, “Isn’t this the heart of biomimetics?” Then Job’s conclusion is clearly a different faith position than most biomimetic engineers. Most choose to accept Darwinian evolution as the brilliant designer, the grand experimenter. I choose rather to side with Job. Listen now to his conclusion implying that the non-sentient animals and even the earth know the obvious answer. “Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.”

The apostle Paul speaks directly to these issues in his letter to the Romans. Paul doesn’t mince words when he says: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Romans 1:18-21

The truth is that God created everything that is (Ephesians 3:9, Colossians 1:16) which is why “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” Revelation 4:11

For further study:

Excellent Books on Biomimetics

Allen, Robert (Editor). 2010. Bulletproof Feathers: How Science Uses Nature's Secrets to Design Cutting-Edge Technology. University of Chicago Press

Bar-Cohen, Yoseph. 2005. Biomimetics: Biologically Inspired Technologies. CRC Press

Bar-Cohen, Yoseph. 2011. Biomimetics: Nature-Based Innovation. CRC Press

Benyus, Janine M. 2002. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. 2nd Edition. William Morrow Paperback

Some of my favorite TED talks dealing with biomimicry

Janine Benyus

Janine Benyus

Michael Pawlyn

Cheryl Hayashi

Markus Fischer

Nina Tandon

Fiorenzo Omenetto

Robert Full

Robert Full

Robert Full

Biomimetics on the web:

• Intelligent Design in Nature makes Engineers Envious, October 31, 2013, Evolution News and Views from the Discovery Institute

• University Programs in Biomimicry, a web page from the Biomimicry Institute that keeps an updated listing of universities offering programs in biomimicry.

• Biomimicry 3.8 Institute, claims to be the “global leader in biomimicry innovation consulting, professional training and educational program and curricula development. Founded in 2006 by Janine Benyus the institute “promotes the study and imitation of nature’s remarkably efficient designs”

• Lists of strategies/examples of biomimicry:

From Ask Nature

From Biomimicry 3.8

From Mother Nature Network

From Biomimicry Education Network and

From How Stuff Works

From Schlumberger Excellence in Educational Development (SEED)

From Interface - a designer and maker of carpet tile

From the Nature Conservancy -

From Jeremy Eddy

From Brainz

From Treehugger

From Forbes

From Bloomberg

From Pintrest

From University of Cambridge and

From Ecouterre

From University of Montana

From FastCompany

From Designboom

From Inhabitat

From Popular Science

From Wikipedia

From Rushlane

[1] Frank E. Fish. 2004. Structure and Mechanics of Nonpiscine Control Surfaces. IEEE Journal of Oceanic Engineering 29(3):605-621

[2] Otto H. Schmitt. "Some Interesting and Useful Biomimetic Transforms", Proceedings, Third International Biophysics Congress, Boston, Mass., Aug. 29-Sept. 3,1969, Abstracts, p.297.

[3] F. E. Fish and J. J. Rohr. 1999. Review of Dolphin Hydrodynamics and Swimming Performance. Technical Report 1801. SPAWAR System Center San Diego [PDF]

[4]Janine M. Benyus. 2002. Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Harper Perennial. 308 pp.


[6] Yoseph Bar-Cohen. Biomimetics: Using nature as an inspiring model for human innovation. 



David Steen, PhD

Andrews University (retired)