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How Mother Nature’s ‘Inventions’ Are Changing Our Lives

The first person that I can recall wearing Velcro was F. Wayne King, the eminent naturalist and herpetologist who is now Curator Emeritus at the  Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

I remember walking with Dr. King down the hallowed halls of the University of Florida’s museum looking at archived skeletal and fluid preserved specimens of crocodilians and other herpetofauna from around the world. It occurred to me, as he graciously toured me around the building, that he probably walked these long, off-exhibit halls with great regularity, and Velcro straps on his shoes made a lot of sense.

I have great respect for Dr. King and admire his practicality.  It’s really not terribly important why he may have chosen Velcro over shoe laces. What is important with respect to this article is that the first hook-and-loop fastener that was made commercially available—what we call Velcro—was invented using biomimicry back in 1941.

The Swissman Georges de Mestral thought of the mechanism behind Velcro after returning from a hunting trip with his dog in the Swiss Alps.  He noticed that the burrs (seeds) of burdock fastened readily to his clothes and his dog’s fur.  Under microscopic examination he saw that hundreds of tiny hooks on the burrs stuck on to anything with a loop.

Georges figured out a way to mechanize the hook and loop apparatus with nylon (which had been recently invented) and the rest is history. It took almost a decade, but with much persistence he created Velcro, for which he received a patent in 1955.

From friction-reducing sharkskin to gecko tape, inventors around the world are relying on Mother Nature’s magnificent design for the creation of new products, many of which are ecologically sound and environmentally sustainable.

One of the champions of biomimicry is the San Diego Zoo Global (the Zoological Society of San Diego). The zoo is at the forefront of teaching and raising awareness about biomimicry. They have reached out to students, researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, and environmentally conscious corporations looking for green solutions to today’s most important problems via sustainable technology.

On April 14-15th, the World Famous San Diego Zoo  will host the 2011 Biomimicry Conference, their third biomimicry conference. The two -day conference presented by mirasol will address innovation inspired by nature, that is both efficient and sustainable.

Helen Cheng, one of the zoo’s biomimicry coordinators, cites biomimicry as “a key driver of innovation” and a “true economic game changer.” Dollar signs flashed in my eyes when she mentioned that in North America alone, the emerging field would make a three hundred billion dollar impact in just over a decade or more.

The conference  will not only cater to local universities and industries, but it will draw from a pool of innovators from around the globe.

When I look to pioneering and enterprising zoological institutions, San Diego Zoo Global is one at or near the very top of my list. They set the standard in many ways for zoological institutions. The zoo reaches a huge market, but to conserve biodiversity it is essential to include everyone, and frankly some are incentivized by a growing profit margin.  I think that San Diego Zoo Global has made an exemplary effort to make people aware that what is good for the planet is good for the people living on it, and this is just one example.

In talking to the CEO of the Biomimicry Institute, Bryony Schwan, I learned that biomimicry is more than just imitating structural constructs that we see in nature, rather it is a way of approaching problems and making sense of the world. After all, nature has been around much longer than we have and there are infinite ways of solving problems through a myriad of designs created by Mother Nature.

Bryony shared some complicated biomimetic case studies that illustrate how biomimicry can help businesses restructure themselves and become more efficient. From using ecosystems’ feedback loops to the biomechanics of filter feeding in flamingoes, businesses are poised to reinvent themselves and their organizational structures.  It seems to me that a biomimetic approach may be optimal when you think of how these biological analogues have survived over evolutionary time.

Why not defer to Mother Nature.

Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.


  1. sera
    June 20, 2011, 11:49 am

    i realy intresting about it and thanks for your hard work