Albert McKeon

Mar 22nd 2023

From Slime Mold to Sloths: Biomimicry Inspires Real-World Applications


Nature offers gifts every day, from horizon-stretching sunsets to blazing autumn foliage, zippy little hummingbirds and even funny cat videos. But nature can reveal more than what can be seen by the naked eye: when you look very closely, you can see nature rivaling — or surpassing — human efficiency. Observing these intricate processes, forms and characteristics can inspire and influence the systems that humans create and rely on.

Sometimes, nature’s influences seem obvious, like how birds in flight led to the creation of airplanes. Other times, wellsprings of ideas can be surprising. The single-celled slime mold, for example, provides insight into how a city can make its roads better conduits for travel. Just as a routine sunset can occasionally reveal a new perspective, finding intelligent patterns and behaviors in biology can be a source of inspiration.

Biomimicry Borrows Nature’s 3.8-Billion-Year-Old Secrets

Engineers and scientists study nature for answers because its systems may have already arrived at an answer. This look outward is known as biomimicry. It’s a popular approach in architecture, environmental conservation, construction, robotics and other fields. With technology being able to design and manufacture all sorts of materials today, it’s getting easier to shape solutions that were first shown to work in nature.

The nonprofit Biomimicry Institute sees the act of replicating nature as a way for humans to survive and thrive on a planet stressed by human-made climate change. While innovators look to biomimicry to create something efficient and effective, the people at the institute believe that, along the way, they also form a connection with the natural world.

As the president of the Biomimicry Institute told GreenBiz, “It’s the process of looking at something like a leaf, and trying to figure out how to make a better solar cell. … After 3.8 billion years, life has learned what works and what’s appropriate on the planet, and right now that’s what the people trying to redesign our world are looking for.”

Nature in Action by Plane, Train or Whale Back

Perhaps the most famous example of nature’s influence is the Wright brothers’ observations of birds helping to get their Wright Flyer I in the air. Other aspiring aviators also looked to nature’s winged creatures for inspiration, but it was the Wrights’ study of birds gliding in circles that allowed them to master a critical aspect of flying. They got their plane to balance and turn in the air by warping the wings in opposite directions to change the amount of lift generated by each side, something they observed in vultures, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

Decades later, observing birds also helped to get another innovative mode of transportation not off the ground but to move faster — and more quietly. Reaching speeds of almost 200 miles per hour, the Shinkansen bullet train would make a sonic boom when it exited a tunnel. Innovators had been trying to work out how to eliminate it, and one birdwatching engineer noticed a potential parallel in a kingfisher’s long beak that allows it to dive into water without making a splash. So, the Shinkansen underwent a facelift. With a 50-foot-long beak-shaped nose, the train no longer booms, faces less wind resistance and travels faster.

Solving problems isn’t just for the birds, though. The water habits of the suckerfish inspired a scientific breakthrough in how to attach trackers to animals in the wild. Known for traveling oceans on the backs of whales, rays and sharks, suckerfish were observed not tightly grasping the skin to hang on, but rather hovering slightly above it. Their position forms a low-pressure zone that sucks the two close together, even on a full-speed ride. This realization inspired researchers to create a biomimetic sucker to track whales and other mammals that has better adhesion than previous trackers.

Looking at Slime Mold, Frog Tongues and More

The slime mold physarum polycephalum grows as a greenish-yellow system of veins that form a tubular network. The network transfers nutrients throughout the organism, first “foraging” broadly over an area, then refining the network to improve the movement of the nutrients.

Researchers believe this level of slime mold intelligence could provide a model for improving city planning, according to A University of Toronto research team created a computer model that simulates the way slime mold constructs its network. They based the model on metrics that speak to architects, city planners and others who might find these lessons from slime mold intelligence beneficial to their design process.

If that seems like a bit of a leap, consider how the super-fast tongues of frogs inspired Georgia Tech University researchers, according to CBS News. Amazed at how a frog’s tongue could move fast and not lose its grip on flies and other tasty objects, the researchers are learning how frog saliva could lead to the development of new adhesives.

What else could scientists and engineers learn from nature? According to the Biomimicry Institute, the ladybug’s compact and foldable wings can inspire aeronautics and space technology. The anglerfish’s ability to manipulate light could lead to new ultra-black materials and bio-inspired lamps. And the spines of sloths can illustrate how to balance compression and tension.

Of course, the energy-saving and purposeful leisureliness of sloths themselves could improve the movements of robotics. That would be a study anyone could enjoy — slowly.

Are you interested in all things related to science and technology? We are, too. Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery.