3.8 Billion Years of R&D at the San Diego Zoo



I recently had the pleasure of assisting the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership in an all-day “Sustainability Walkabout” for the Sustainable Brands conference. The highlight of the day was a Biomimicry segment hosted by the world-famous San Diego Zoo. First let me say that, though I spend a lot of time at the Zoo, it was an exceptional visit. And not just because the perfect flamingo eggs I’d seen the week before, each perched carefully atop a miniature mud volcano, were now transformed into tiny, fuzzy, stilt creatures bobbing around beneath their sensible pink parents. This visit, I was getting the inside scoop from Sunni Robertson, animal trainer and educator extraordinaire.

Sunni started with the giraffes, pointing out their precise, finger-like prehensile tongues while we fed them lettuce. The impossibly long, bluish tongues are perfectly designed to work gently and precisely around nasty two-inch acacia thorns. And they can actually lick their eyeballs.

She showed us the buttressed skull and jaw of a deceased giraffe, so heavy that seven mighty vertebrae are required to prop it up. How many vertebrae hold up our own puny skulls? Seven. That’s right, despite the giraffe’s incredibly long neck, Nature simply worked with the original mammalian blueprint to come up with a unique solution.

That’s common in evolutionary design: Nature likes to borrow and rework from the parts she has in stock. Take the giraffe’s cinder-cone horns, for instance. Made of keratin, just like hooves and hair, the same simple units are endlessly repurposed. Ultimately, all these parts are made from hay and leaves at ‘room temperature.’ No toxic by-products, no waste, no fossil fuels or plastics. And when the giraffe’s life is complete, everything is returned to Earth to make new hay and leaves.

No flies pester the giraffes. They prefer the wild ass and camel that stamp and twitch nearby. Turns out, the giraffe secretes its own perfumed insect repellant, redolent of jasmine and orange blossom. Perhaps someday we will buy ‘eau de giraffe’ from our nearest REI. Beats DEET, I’m sure.

Another bio-inspired anti-insect strategy is right next door, with the zebra. Do the stripes confuse lions, or are they aimed at a lowlier target? Flies hate sitting on mixed color fields, just like my cat. All black or all white is great, but the close-set stripes drive flies away in droves. Maybe we should give up our tasteful teal and brown recycled soda bottle hiking jackets for racy zebra patterns. Meow!

Economists estimate that 97.5% of the thermodynamic energy we use becomes waste 6 months or less after production. If we can’t improve that, half the species on Earth will be extinct in 100 years. But those same species have already invented and honed the leanest possible techniques for exploiting the same kinds of niches our products inhabit. We would do well to look closely. Why reinvent the wheel, as they say?

For instance, where in Nature do square boxes occur? Nowhere I can think of. Corners just aren’t efficient, says resident Biomimic Helen Cheng. Consider instead the boxfish, an agile darter that inspired the Mercedes-Benz ‘Bionic’. The result: a roomy minivan with the aerodynamics of a drop of water and a 20% increase in fuel-efficiency. Its easy if you know where to look.

We enter the Southeast Asian rainforest of Tiger River. Lush, dark green foliage encompasses the bus, while mysterious pings and whistles dip and rise from nearby treetops. Here, plants are growing fast, competing in an all-out race to reach the sunlight, winding and snaking over other plants to climb to the light. Leaves are very large, designed to shield roots from flooding and to maximize energy absorption.

Sunni points out the heavyweight tigers lounging at the top of the exhibit, lapping water from an engineered stream. The barbs on their tongues move water up to their mouths like a series of tiny cups on a water wheel. Why the bright orange coat? It’s a surprisingly common color in these rainforests. The orangutan, many birds, and some infant monkeys display similar coloring. Surely that orange is a neon sign saying “eat me,” or “I’m coming to eat you”? ‘Convergent evolution’ refers to completely unrelated organisms arriving at the same design solution independently. When we see that, it must be a great solution! It turns out that red wavelengths are the first to disappear in low light. And, most animals do not have the variety of color perception displayed by humans and other fruit eaters. For most creatures, red is indistinguishable from green, and green is all around us. The tigers, orangutans, and infant monkeys are completely invisible unless you are a bird or primate.

Next, we see the hippos, lazing in the sun, coated with thick red ooze. This oily goo consists of tiny crystals, each reflecting the sun away from sensitive skin. Our own industrial processes can’t produce crystals this small, or sunscreen this effective.

Another clever strategy for surviving a hot climate is found in Elephant Odyssey, my kids’ favorite section of the park. Can we find a use for “ear conditioning”? Blood circulates and cools in the African elephant’s enormous flapping ears, while a unique gel in each of their pillar-like feet helps pump that blood with each impressively silent step: a beautifully efficient solution with applications in buildings, coolant systems, and footwear.

The California Condor, brought back from the brink of extinction by the Zoo’s hand-rearing efforts, are dear to our hearts despite their grim appearance and grisly diet. Unusually acidic stomach acid, strong enough to digest bones, makes them impervious to carcass-loving anthrax and botulism. Perhaps this scavenger trick could be used to combat terrorism and food poisoning.

Our bus pulls near an outbuilding, and we disembark for an activity, guided by the zoo’s resident Biomimics: Helen Cheng, Dena Emmerson, and Claire Wathen, shadowed by myself. Our group receives a few of Nature’s designs: pine cones, feathers, leaves, seedpods, and bark. We are asked to select an item and sketch it. Most groups I’ve done this with are shy about putting pen to paper. But this group is eager and design-savvy. Beautifully intricate sketches emerge. The process forces us to become more observant. Describe the object using all your senses. What is Nature using this object for? Why is each detail the way it is? Some features are shaped by chance, neutral in function and arbitrary in detail; others may be tuned to precision, attracting mates or pollinators, prey, or symbiont conspirators; still others may perform integral functions: obtaining nutrients; regulating temperature, hydration, or light exposure; locomotion. How can the object inspire emulation? Can we use the feature to do things more efficiently?

The results are impressive: energy-efficient homes and humidity-sensing watering devices modeled on the pine cone; blister-packs for pills and water-collection devices inspired by seed pods; wind- and weather-resistant building materials modeled on palm thatch.

One strategy that jumps out is Nature’s passive responsiveness to change. Windows open and close, darken and lighten in response to light or temperature. Turbines adjust to wind speed, and watering devices respond to humidity. Building materials become more flexible or more rigid, more or less permeable, softer or harder as needed, without external energy input. Genius solutions allow us to tread more lightly on our Earth.

The Zoo’s mission is nothing short of preserving 3.8 billion years of R&D. Every organism on this planet has been extensively test-driven, and only the really good design concepts are still around. But even a great design can only take so much. Biomimicry is a natural way to bring concrete value to this treasure, so maybe we’ll be more motivated to save it. The Zoo exhibits a vast living library of plant and animal strategies that can inspire and inform our own industrial design, and companies like Procter and Gamble, Nike, and Qualcomm are eagerly looking to Nature for their next innovation. I’m excited to join them.