Natural Inspiration

July 22, 2016

Nature has been inspiring technology since the renaissance period, but a scientific discovery has never had such humble beginnings as the blue-rayed limpet. Here’s how a simple sea creature inspired the minds behind some of the latest tech.



No bigger than a 5p coin, this tiny mollusc inhabits kelp forests along the coasts of northern Europe. The vibrant blue stripes on the limpet’s shell that attracted researchers from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When viewed at the right angle these blue striations appear to flash intermittently; a display that is thought to ward off potential predators. What is unique about this is that it is one of few displays in the animal kingdom that is created via inorganic substances, as opposed to organic structures. But what’s the difference? Organic structures such as keratin and chitin (found in feathers, fur, and scales) are used to create bright colours for impressive visual displays, such as those seen in peacock feathers, chameleon scales and butterfly wings. Inorganic structures manipulate minerals and elements from an animal’s diet or surroundings to do the same job.


Using 3D analysis software to look closely at the limpet’s shell, researchers found that their blue stripes were being created by two distinct structures embedded deep within the inner layers. The first is a horizontal zigzag pattern formed by the calcium carbonate layers of shell. The second is a space below the zigzag structure that contains randomly placed spheres made of complexly arranged minerals. Working in unison, the zigzag structure is used to reflect blue wavelengths of light, and the spherical structures are used to absorb all other light that passes through. This makes the reflected blue light appear more vivid. It is these carefully arranged mineral compounds that have inspired the blueprints for transparent interactive displays that require no light source. Innovative new technologies such as Google Glass, Sat Nav’s that are projected onto car window screens, and transparent mobile phones are all capable of applying the same optical mechanism seen in limpet’s shell.


However, this isn’t the first time we have seen a species inspire new technology. US navy researchers have invested millions into the creation of a material that reduces drag in the water. Modelled from the sleek scales of sharkskin, this tech is being put to use on boats, planes and even tyres. A more commonly known example is spider silk. This remarkably durable material is nature’s strongest organic structure. It has recently been put to use for its sticky properties, acting as a thin adhesive tape suitable for delicate surgery.


But it’s not just animals that have had a hand in innovating some new tech; plants have had a shot too. Burdock, a bulbous hairy plant that we often see growing in fields, was the inspiration behind the creation of Velcro for Swedish inventor George de Mestral. When out for a walk, George saw how the burdock buds stuck to the fur of his dog. This influenced him to create a material that can reversibly bind to another through the hooked fibres (Goodrich, 2013)


Inspiration for exciting new technology is scattered throughout the natural world. From rock pools to mountaintops, from minute molluscs to one-tonne sharks, we are creating a better future for ourselves by learning more about how these organisms work. And if this is not reason enough to promote the conservation of biodiversity and the protection of species, then what is?


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