We, humans, are always searching for ways to make our lives easier; our technological evolution from crude stone tools is evidence. The natural world is full of design inspiration, and we have learned so much through biomimicry. Some famous biomimicry examples are airplanes and the invention of Velcro by George de Mestral.
In this article, we share 24 examples of biomimicry, some of which may absolutely surprise you. But first…
Biomimicry is the practice of studying aspects of nature to draw inspiration to improve human technology's overall efficiency.
The term biomimicry is made up of two words. The first is "bio," which means life, and the other is "mimicry," which means to imitate. So, we can conclude that biomimicry is simply to imitate nature.
In nature, inefficient systems rarely survive. Plants and animals have adapted to the demands and changes in their environment over millions of years to ensure they stay. Humans have tapped into the vast developmental experience stored in nature to achieve some fantastic results.
Related Read: What Does It Mean To Go Green?
From how aircraft look, you can tell what part of nature inspired them—birds, of course. Humans have always envied the ability of birds to fly. You'll find many folk stories about humans flying through magical means. It wasn't until October 5, 1905, that the first working airplane took flight.
The Wright brothers are credited for inventing the airplane. However, they were not the first to imagine human flight. Leonardo Da Vinci, inspired by birds, created countless sketches and notes of flying machines. His illustration of the ornithopter is what current helicopters are based on.
The works of John Cayley, Otto Lilienthal, Samuel P. Langley, and Octave Chanute, all based on bird flight, provided significant research for the Wright brothers.
Related Read: Bird Facts.
Who would've thought that Velco is a fine example of biomimicry? Velcro's ease and versatility are amazing, but the story of how nature inspired it is even more so. On a beautiful day in 1941, a Swiss engineer, George de Mestral, went on a stroll with his dog. On returning, he found burrs from the burdock plant stuck to his dog's hair and his pants with small hooks.
Curiously inspecting the burrs under a microscope, he saw that the burrs have tiny hooks that attached quickly to fabrics, especially hairy ones. Then, it struck him that he could invent a new way to fasten things.
It took decades before George de Mestral found commercial success with his product. That happened because NASA discovered Velcro while looking for a better way to fasten objects to the walls of spaceships20.
Cool air is essential in summer heat, but air conditioners are not a sustainable solution. Air conditioning, especially for large buildings, requires a lot of power. This results in a huge carbon footprint and, of course, a substantial energy bill.
On a comparative scale level, termite mounds are the skyscrapers of the ant world. Their chimney-like building structure lets in cool air through tunnels and vents hot air through the open top8.
A perfect example of biomimicry in construction is the Eastgate Center. The building is a 350,000-square-foot building in Zimbabwe. The building copies the ventilation system of termite mounds. As a result, it uses 90% less energy for air conditioning compared to buildings of similar size.
Today, more engineers are applying the basic principles of termite mounds to design more energy-efficient buildings.
While shopping for gifts, Frank Fish, an expert in biomechanics, saw a humpback whale sculpture. He immediately assumed the sculptor had incorrectly placed the bumps on the fin. The shopkeeper told him otherwise, and that opened the door for new research on the humpback whale fin.
Together with Laurens Howle and engineers from the Naval Academy, Fish tested smooth vs. bumpy-edged airfoils. The tests revealed that the bumps helped humpback whales to swim better, reducing drag and increasing lift.
Inspired by humpback whales, Fish established Whale Power to design water and wind turbine blades with bumps15. The bumpy blades are more resistant to limitations posed by water and air pressure, reduce drag, and improve lift. We should expect to see tubercle technology in global wind energy, household and industrial fans, and irrigation pumps.
Related Read: Whale Facts.
Our next example of biomimicry is Japan's Shinkansen bullet train, which debuted in 1964. It was the fastest train the world had ever seen at that time, reaching up to 130.5 mi per hour. It mostly earned the name "bullet train" due to its high speed and how its front end looked like a bullet.
However, there was one big problem. Every time bullet trains exited tunnels. They produced a loud noise called a sonic boom or tunnel boom. This was due to air building up in front of the trains inside the tunnels.
The sonic boom was a significant source of noise pollution for passengers, local residents, and wildlife. The air pressure also slowed the trains, and Japanese engineers had to fix the issues.
Eiji Nakatsu, a train engineer and an avid birdwatcher, observed that the kingfisher’s beak broke through the surface water with minimal splash11. He redesigned the front end of bullet trains, mimicking the beak, creating bullet trains that were quieter, faster, and more energy efficient.
Imagine it—an organism with no brain teaching humans the best way to structure transport systems in a built environment.
The slime molds are single-celled organisms, able to create complex but efficient routes in their search for food. The organism itself stays in one location and sends out sprawling branches. It erases the branches that don't find food and enhances the ones that do.
In Japan, a group of scientists put the pathway-creating ability of the slime mold Physarum polycephalum to the test. They placed oat flakes in positions corresponding with major cities and used lights to represent prohibited terrain. The mold soon constructed intricate pathways to get to the food5.
Soon, the slime mold map resembled the efficiently designed Tokyo subway system. The experiment proves that nature can help us manage things like traffic and city planning. What an innovative application of a biomimicry example!
A biomimetic architectural masterpiece, the Gherkin Building in London is inspired by nature. The design inspiration came from a sea sponge called the Venus flower basket.
The hollow tubular sponge filters seawater to capture nutrients. A lattice-like exoskeleton supports it, enabling it to live at depths of up to 1km.
The Gherkin copies the structure and shape of the flower, and it isn't just pretty to look at but has sound structural benefits as well. The round shape helps to direct wind currents around the building.
The shape also pushes air to the back of the building, which is sucked in by ground vents and funneled upward into the building. That helps reduce air conditioning needs by 50%.
Still borrowing ideas from the sponge, the building has an open floor plan with shafts between various floors to promote airflow. The glass exterior wall also lets in abundant natural light.
A shark is a super swimmer, and there's a secret to that. Special teeth-like scales called dermal denticles cover its skin19, creating a low-pressure zone around it. That results in a leading-edge vortex, which pulls the shark forward, significantly minimizing drag.
Inspired by shark skin, NASA and Speedo created a unique swimsuit, the LZR Racer. Athletes wearing suits set 93 world records at the 2008 Olympics. This biomimicry example was determined that the suit provided an unfair advantage and so was banned.
Shark skin has also inspired scientists to develop scaly antifouling coating for ships. The coating can reduce drag by 10%, thereby increasing energy efficiency and improving corrosion resistance by 30%4.
Related Read: Great White Shark Facts.
A woodpecker hits trees with its beak about 12 thousand times a day to find food, build a nest, and communicate.
The scientific community believed that its skull acted as a shock absorber for many years. That way, the bird could escape concussions and other harmful consequences of repeated forceful impacts.
Drawing inspiration from the woodpecker, inventors created shock-absorption materials and even a shock-absorbing helmet.
In 2022, a new study found that the woodpecker has no shock-absorbing qualities. Rather, its head acts as a stiff hammer, and the bird would need to double its average speed to sustain any brain injury. Moreover, the bird can escape brain damage due to having a tiny brain9.
Related Read: Woodpecker Facts.
The sycamore maple tree or Acer pseudoplatanus has seeds with downward angled wing-like structure. The shape of the seeds makes them fall in a swirling motion, similar to helicopter blades. Thanks to their aerodynamic nature, the seeds are able to travel farther easily and stand a better chance of growing into new trees.
Sycamore Technologies created a ceiling fan that mimics the aerodynamic design of sycamore pods. The fan provides better airflow at lower revolutions per minute, so it doesn't consume so much power. It is also much quieter, which is a big help to light sleepers.
The Sycamore ceiling fan is aesthetically pleasing and fit for minimalist decor themes. It is an example of how energy-efficient and beautiful natural designs can be.
A seawall is used in coastal areas to prevent the sea from flowing far enough to erode or encroach on coastal land. But the man-made structure was not the first water breaker; nature already had mangroves.
Mangroves are the only trees that can grow in salty seawater. Their root structure helps slow down the wave surges and creates a habitat for some marine species. However, due to climate change and human activities, the world has lost 50% of its mangroves10.
It was soon obvious that seawalls were a poor replacement for mangroves. To remedy the situation, researchers looked at mangroves and created panels that mimic the root structure of mangroves.
Those panels allow seawalls to act like mangroves, providing habitat for crustaceans and local coral species. Additionally, the panels cushion the impact of the water hitting the seawalls, increasing their durability.
The next biomimicry example is related to concrete, which is a very important building material. We can see it everywhere in the world, thanks to its strength, durability, and availability. But it's not invincible and degrades over time due to load-bearing pressure, weather, or corrosives.
It costs a significant amount of money to repair damaged concrete. And if the damage causes buildings or bridges to collapse, lives could be lost.
Hendrik Marius Jonkers developed a self-healing concrete that can close its cracks the same way the human body repairs broken bones2. That is made possible by the limestone-producing Bacillus pseudofirmus or Sporosarcina pasteurii. The microorganism lives in highly alkaline volcanoes and lakes.
The bacteria is introduced into a concrete mixture and lies dormant. The bacteria get exposed to air and moisture every time the concrete cracks. It protects itself by producing limestone, which covers the gap.
Related Read: Natural Building - Eco-Friendly Materials & Techniques.
Doctors have had to use stitches or medical adhesives to close up wounds and surgical incisions. On body parts that are constantly moving, the adhesive may be too weak to withstand the movement. Another challenge was that those methods did a poor job on wet and delicate organs like the heart.
While researching bone regeneration, a team at Harvard stumbled upon the answer to a surgical glue that could survive extreme movement and wetness17. The inspiration for the medical glue came from the slug.
The common garden slug, known as Dusky Arion, can secret a strong adhesive mucus. The glue helps the slug attach to wet surfaces and keeps it firmly stuck so predators like birds can't pull it off to eat.
The scientists developed an adhesive made of one layer of strong hydrogel and another layer of slug-mimicking polymer. The product is non-toxic and eco-friendly.
Using adhesives in wet environments can be challenging, although it could help solve a lot of problems. Conservationists trying to repair coral reefs, Naval equipment repairs, and dentists could use stronger wet bonding.
On a scuba diving trip, Jonathan Wilker, a Purdue University professor, observed shellfish's remarkable ability to stick firmly to rocks18. He was inspired to create Poly Catechol Styrene (PCS), a non-toxic polymer that mimics the natural glue mussels produce. The glue is versatile and three times stronger than other commercially available underwater glues.
To commercialize the technology, Walker established Mussels Polymer Inc. in 2019. Currently, the company produces SeaTak, an adhesive for coral that NOAA approves. They are also working to perfect a wet bonding formula for dental applications.
Butterflies are cold-blooded insects that use solar energy to warm their blood before they can take flight. Their ability to harvest even the faintest rays of sunlight has helped improve solar energy production for human use.
The Cabbage White butterfly takes flight before other butterflies, even on cloudy days. A team of researchers attributed this to the v-shaped posture of its wings while basking before takeoff. Taking inspiration from the butterfly, researchers created 17-degree angled PV cells that increased energy output by 42.3%12.
Researchers observed that the wings of the common rose butterfly have microscopic punctured scales. The holes scattered sunlight, allowing the butterfly to absorb more heat. In an experiment that took only 10 minutes, they created a thin film with a similar structure that was able to absorb 90% to 200% more sunlight.
Related Read: Butterfly Facts.
The next example of biomimicry is inspired by the Namib Desert beetle, which is capable of collecting water from thin air. The beetle captures and condenses fog with the hydrophilic bumps on its back. Gravity pulls the water droplets through a hydrophobic trough and into the beetle’s mouth.
The beetle has inspired many water collection methods to solve water scarcity problems13. We have water collection nets, water collection surfaces with hydrophilic bumps, and self-filling water bottles.
There have been different iterations of self-filling water bottles. Kitae Pak invented the Dew Bank Bottle, which is a stainless container placed outside at night to collect water. Water vapors condense on the cold surface and enter through tiny holes.
There's also the Fontus self-filling water bottle that converts humid air into water using hydrophobic teeth. An attached solar panel powers Fontus water bottles.
Related Read: Beetle Facts.
Concrete is composed of water, cement, and aggregates. Aggregates are mostly carbonate rocks like limestone created naturally through a carbon sequestration process called mineralization. Nature only requires calcium and CO2 for mineralization.
Brent Constantz, a biomineralization expert at Stanford University, figured out a way to imitate mineralization to produce synthetic limestone aggregates. He also only needs two ingredients: calcium from waste and CO2 from any source.
The calcium source could be from demolished concrete, fly ash, bauxite residue, etc. CO2 can come through direct air capture or be used straight from industrial chimneys.
The synthetic limestone aggregate is made of 44% CO2 and serves as a safe and permanent carbon sink. Also, since it uses waste and CO2, it eliminates the need to consume virgin materials. The aggregate can help promote carbon-negative constructions.
To complete the list of biomimicry examples, our eyes must be included. The human eye is the most spectacular camera in existence. Coupled with the power of our brains, we can capture, store, and revisit images. The human retina inspires camera technology, yet it has limits in capturing fast movements and storage.
Think of surveillance footage capturing gigabytes of inactivity, and when fast movement occurs, it captures blurred images.
An event-based camera is a more efficient camera built to respond only to changes in a given scene. The cameras maximize storage space and capture clearer images. The technology for event-based cameras draws heavily from how neurons in the human retina work.
Over the years, event-based cameras have many improvements. Current iterations can use eye blinks to improve face recognition software and measure light7.
Octopuses and other cephalopods are able to change their skin color and shape to blend in with the environment. They are able to change their body structure. They have skin cells that can detect and copy the elements present in their surroundings.
In 2014, researchers developed an optoelectronic camouflage system inspired by cephalopods6. They created a flexible skin composed of sensors, actuators, and reflectors. The various components work together to see and match colors in the environment. The researchers hoped the technology would be applied to military camouflage suits.
Cephalopods are still inspiring camouflage technology today. Recently, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine convened to discuss camouflage techniques for the military. As you can guess, many of the ideas discussed were cephalopods-inspired.
Related Read: Octopus Facts.
The lotus flower is highly hydrophobic. The plant has microscopic waxy bumps that prevent water molecules and other particles from sticking to them. So, water just rolls off the leaves, sweeping any surface dirt in its path, and that's how they maintain their dirt-free glossy surface.
The plant has inspired stain and water-repellent surfaces across diverse industries. And that has helped cut back on millions of dollars spent to repair infrastructural damages caused by moisture, dust, and stains.
Biomimetic applications of the lotus effect include stain and dust-repellent paint, self-cleaning solar cells, and anti-icing coatings. We also have anti-corrosion coatings, water-repellent clothing, and surface treatment for different kinds of materials. Many lotus-inspired hydrophobic materials exhibit remarkable durability3.
In urban areas, glass is a building material of choice. It is luxurious and easily maintained. However, glass is dangerous to hundreds of millions of birds that dive headfirst into it because it's invisible to them. The collision kills some, injures others, and leaves some disoriented.
Spider webs inspired a solution to the bird glass problem. You see, a spider's web is designed to trap by being almost invisible. So, to deter untrappable birds, the orb-weaver spider evolved to have a UV-reflective web. Birds see the web and avoid it14.
Using a natural world cue, a German company developed a glass with a patterned UV-reflective coating. Several tests were conducted to prove that the glass would reduce bird crashes. Also, since the reflection is invisible to the human eye, it still maintains a luxurious finish.
Related Read: Spider Facts.
LED lighting is energy-efficient and eco-friendly. It requires less energy compared to conventional bulbs with similar lighting capacity. LED bulbs are also valuable for their durability, as they can last for decades. Moreso, they do not contain toxic chemicals like mercury, which is present in fluorescent bulbs.
Although LEDs are bright, much of the light they produce diminishes because light can reflect backward. Fireflies solve their own light extraction challenges with asymmetric microstructures on their lanterns. This is starkly different from conventional LEDs with a symmetrical or flat surface.
Researchers at Penn State University found that mimicking the surface structure of fireflies improved the extraction efficiency of LEDs by 90%.1 With brighter LED bulbs, households and businesses can cut energy costs significantly.
White is a luxurious color and one of the industry's most in-demand pigments. Unfortunately, Titanium Dioxide (TiO2), the chemical used to produce white pigment, is toxic. Undoubtedly, the accumulation of TiO2 in the environment could be dangerous to humans and wildlife.
At Impossible Materials, UK, researchers studied the Super-white Cyphochilus beetle. The beetle's skin appears white because it has microscopic rod-like structures that scatter light. They were able to mimic the structure using cellulose, successfully creating a natural white pigment.
The pigment they created is non-toxic and so much safer for the planet. It is also high-performing, lightweight, and thin. Its application could be in the food, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical industries. What a diverse application for a biomimicry example!
The pain of injections is the reason kids make such a fuss about going to the doctor's. Even adults find it largely uncomfortable. As annoying as they are, female mosquitoes could hold the secret to less painful injections.
Oftentimes, when you feel the sting of a mosquito bite, the insect has already done its deed. Four things contribute to the painless piercing: the numbing saliva, the serration and vibration of the fascicles, and how the proboscis varies in stiffness.
Researchers at the Ohio University have studied the way female mosquitoes extract blood. Using that knowledge, they theoretically designed a microneedle that could make injections significantly less painful16.
Related Read: Mosquito Facts.
Janine Benyus' book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, helps popularize biomimicry principles. Over the years, her organization, Biomimicry Insititute, developed the six key Biomimicry Life’s Principles:
The Biomimicry Institute believes that biomimicry likely holds the answer to sustainable designs, technologies, and lifestyles, especially if industries take biomimicry as an empathetic understanding of low-life works and how humans fit in harmoniously.
In the future, biomimicry will be more about creating circular and regenerative designs that don't just look like nature but work like nature.
Related Read: What is Sustainable Living?
Biomimicry is learning how the natural world works and using the knowledge to improve the overall efficiency of human technology. In this article, we share outstanding examples of biomimicry, like how the kingfisher helped eliminate the sonic boom issue of bullet trains and how a beetle is helping solve water scarcity by making water from thin air.
All examples of biomimicry have the potential to help fight global warming, especially if it is done in such a way that is eco-friendly. Be the next scientist to innovate one!
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Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.
Fact Checked By:
Isabela Sedano, BEng.