On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

Nature’s Engineers: Pest-Inspired Innovations

Photo taken and supplied by Brian Voon Yee Yap...

Termite Mound. Image via Wikipedia.

By: Michelle Wong

Many animals or insects that live within the city are considered pests, but are they solely a nuisance? Engineers and ecologists would disagree; they can see the contributions animals add to our wellbeing and the inspiration they provide for future technology.

In architecture, one great example of a pest-turned-muse is the termite.  Termites are known for living in colonies and eating detritus (dead plant material). For home owners, termites are renowned for gorging on wooden support beams, but more recently these insects are being recognized for the built-in air conditioning system within their termite mounds.  Mounds in Nigeria (Source: BBC) use passive chimney-style ventilation (Source: IOM3) with a large basement for air circulation.  With its location underground and the processing of latent heat through water evaporation, their basement is kept cool. Chimneys add to the process by allowing air to circulate throughout the basement and the living quarters.  Although temperatures in the desert can reach a frigid 37˚ or a scorching 107˚ Fahrenheit, the building interior only slightly changes from a mild 88 degrees.  Harare, Zimbabwe already has their own energy-efficient, termite-inspired shopping mall, Eastgate Centre, that uses 10% of the energy required to power a conventional building (Source: BMI).

Possums are often mistaken for rodents and thrown out of backyards, but they aren’t called Nature’s Sanitation Engineers for no reason.  Related to kangaroos, these urban inhabitants are omnivores that clean up the streets by eating rotten fruit, dead animals, mice, spiders, roaches, snakes, lizards, and just about any other bug or reptile.  Possums also have the lowest chance of any mammal to catch rabies due to their low body temperature and an equally low chance of passing it on to you or your pets.  If you don’t mind sharing a little of your garden harvest and as long as you keep your trashcan secure, these marsupials will provide your home a free pest control service.  They are not particularly vicious, but each homeowner will have to negate the pros and cons of keeping a backyard guest.

Beavers have a negative stereotype of being a water pest and North America has a history of turning their pelts into fur hats, but the dams that beavers build are also responsible for creating wetlands, filtering clean water, and replenishing the top soil.  These actions have earned them a new nickname, the Ecosystem Engineer, for creating meadows and ponds.  Melinda Daniels, an associate professor of geology at Kansas State University, commented that,

“A lot of rivers are in trouble and need work and restoration, but it’s amazing how little we know about the systems we’re trying to fix” and that “we know they’re broken, but we don’t exactly know what they should look like because we know so little about how many of our river systems function.”

Studying the interactions of beavers with their environment or simply leaving them be, without hunting them, will provide a valuable service to the earth and help conservationists learn how to restore our rivers and water supply.

Eric Adams, an executive director of land management for MacGregor Ranch, had this to say:

“Properly managed, beavers can be a great thing.  Beavers slow the water down, which lets it soak into the river bank. They have allowed new growth of aspen trees, which act like gigantic sponges underground for water storage.”

Unless you’re an entomologist, you might say insects are rather annoying and possibly repulsive, but the military is turning to them for inspiration in futuristic robots designs.  Insects have eyes with greater vision, their bodies are designed for mobility, and they’re small enough to go where we can’t, making them ideal robot models.  For example, flies or bees can better navigate an area or locate buried disaster victims without being noticed.  With 75% of known living animals classified as insects, they must be doing something right, and scientists are using reverse-engineering to copy their designs for more efficient cameras, cars, and aircrafts. NASA is also investing in robot bugs to explore Mars. Mandyam Srinivasan, a biologist at the Australian National University in Canberra, adds her two cents:

“Some of nature’s solutions are surprisingly simple and effective, and are not always dreamt up by engineering-style thinking.”

Even the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory used to send rockets to outer space owes its thanks to the jet propulsion movement of the humble squid.  Studying animals has literally helped us reach for the stars!  Have you noticed any behavior or feature of an animal that you think is amazing?  It might be used in the future to model a new form of technology, and, who knows; maybe you can be the one to design it!

Michelle Wong is a May-June Education Intern with the Museum.

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