Climbing is a specialized skill that uses numerous abilities and techniques. Scientists working in robotics and materials research often gain inspiration from the natural world, using biomimicry as a guide, and this is especially true when looking to mimic climbing. For instance, animals that climb trees, and other animals with cool abilities, can be frequent sources of inspiration. So, what is it about climbing that inspires the research, and what is it that these innovators look for?
There’s interplay between speed, safety and efficiency, according to a research study published in the Royal Society that analyzes how climbing animals climb. For us, the activity makes use of our strength and the coordination of our hands and feet to propel us up a rock face, tree or other environmental hurdle. Similarly, many animals use their paws and feet, but others rely on special adaptations or techniques that are less common.
Bears (but Not Polar Bears)
Bears are pretty good climbers — so good, in fact, that the usual advice is not to try climbing a tree to escape them. They have strong curved claws in each foot that can grip tree bark, and as the National Parks Service points out, they’re quite agile. However, unlike other animals that climb trees, they descend back legs first. They also use human-like techniques for rock climbing: scaling up with three points of contact and pushing with powerful leg muscles.
Mountain goats, especially ibex species, are incredibly nimble in their mountain habitats. They use this amazing climbing skill to seek out nutritious herbs and lick salts from rock faces.
Like other even-toed ungulates, they have two horned toes on each foot that are curved and can splay out. The outer edge is quite hard and comprises a horn wall, whereas the center is softer. The ability to widen the toes and deform the soles to match terrain surfaces gives these goats an incredible grip on near-vertical terrain.
Ask anyone who has ever managed a tank of hermit crabs, and they’ll tell you they have a few cool abilities that help them escape. They scale vertical tank walls with apparent ease, and tank enrichment should include hermit crab climbing toys. Anything with protrusions is scalable to these animals, including tree bark, coral walls and each other. The crabs use the tips of their legs to climb, a behavior that’s employed in foraging, asserting dominance and escaping from predators.
Hermit crabs have inspired robotics researchers to build pipe-climbing maintenance robots that can scurry along pipework in petrochemical plants to keep an eye out for ductwork failures.
Geckos have serious climbing skills in all orientations, being able to cling to vertical surfaces just by the stickiness of their feet. They’ve inspired numerous biomimicry projects, including robotic climbers that can scale any surface and multi-use adhesive tape for spaceflights.
What helps geckos climb is the tiny hairs, or setae, on their feet that generate weak but effective van der Waals charges between molecules. These grippers cling to surfaces without leaving a trace, last a lifetime and are inspiring the development of strong, reusable adhesives by NASA for space missions.
Octopuses also have interesting climbing abilities. Though they need to be in water to use them, their strong and flexible tentacles help them climb vertical surfaces. These tentacles are equipped with numerous strong and powerful suckers that can latch onto smooth surfaces, according to the New England Aquarium. Octopuses can even escape their tanks unless precautions are taken. Fortunately, a simple layer of Astroturf can stop their suckers from clinging, and aquarists usually also use a heavy or lockable lid on their enclosures to stop them from wandering.
Their climbing ability has also inspired robotics. Biomimicry researchers have developed robots with features based on the tentacle and sucker anatomy of octopuses’ limbs that can grip and manipulate irregular objects, including ladder rungs and rough walls.
As biologists continue to study the amazing abilities of wildlife, engineers will undoubtedly identify even more qualities from the animal kingdom worth mimicking through human technology.
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