What We Fear Most May Help Keep Us Alive
They hijack our systems. They flood us with fear. They are part of our comeback story.
Turns out sharks, snakes, spiders, and even brainless jellyfish are not scrappy survivors, but breeding grounds for innovation. They redefine what’s possible. They push us to rethink our relationship with what threatens us. And they deserve our respect and attention for far more than mastering death blows — like their less obvious tricks to stay alive.
The NASAs, Nikes, MITs know: Nothing is more competitive and elegant than evolution, or more packed with proof coated in possibility. There’s a reason why even the US Military, which is defined by flexing its muscles to the universe, looks to nature over and over again for their next breakthrough from artificial intelligence to aircraft design. It sees nature’s legends for what they are: master optimizers. Hanging out here for millions of years means you get remarkably skilled at figuring out what works. You’re dead when you don’t.
It makes you think — how good are we?
To put this into perspective: we live on a 4.5 billion-year-old earth and if we compress its age into a 365-day year:
- Jan 1: Earth was born
- Feb 25: Life first appeared
- Dec 31 at 11:36 PM: Primates appeared
- Dec 31 at 11:59:58 PM: Industrial Revolution began (two seconds before midnight)
Wild to consider the scars unleashed on our home planet in those two seconds. And empowering to consider the healing possible in the next one.
Forget altruism–solutions that outperform the standard speak for themselves and convince an unconvinced world. When they originate from the voiceless, protect the voiceless, and go from purely human-centric, money-centric, and techno-centric to include Life-centric — wildflowers and kelp forests to hermit crabs, wolves, and humans — our collective comeback story is within reach.
Like so many things, we could be better by turning towards what makes us uncomfortable, honoring all life (warm-blooded, cold-blooded, no-blooded), and understanding our present by unlocking the past. The 7 innovations below weave together all three–even if our lifelines are concealed in packages we’re conditioned to reject, despise, and destroy.
Let’s get the pandemic under control by learning from sharks
Innovation: Sharkskin inspires antibacterial surfaces
Big picture: For fighting global immunity and superbug outbreaks–without drugs, chemicals, and antibiotics. Potential applications include medical devices, doorknobs, underwater robots, ships, and just about everything we touch.
Nature’s solution: Mimic the texture and diamond pattern of sharkskin to make surfaces resistant to bacteria and prevent attachment.
Behind the science: Dr. Anthony Brennan at University of Florida at Gainesville; US Army Laboratories; National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation NRT program; Example company: Sharklet Technologies
The intrigue + why it matters: For many, our obsession with sharks begins before we can cut our own food. It’s warranted. Sharks have been around since BEFORE THE DINOSAURS. They are arguably a perfect specimen: graceful, mysterious, intelligent, and undeniable living displays of evolution. But while many of us revere them for their slick predatory skills, it’s their skin that’s making us smarter and safer.
They may be decorated in scars, but you won’t find dragging algae or crusty barnacles on their skin. It’s not because they are speedy–even Basking Sharks who move in slow-mo (more like a manatee) stay clean.
What’s their secret? Bacteria can’t stand shark skin. It’s not the smell or the taste. It’s the feel. Bacteria struggle to attach and grow on shark skin’s unique architecture (called dermal denticles) which are essentially thousands of backwards diamond-shaped pointing grooves and ridges. If you think of bacteria as a tiny balloon landing here and there and everywhere, sharkskin is like resting on a bed of blades.
Scientists and engineers saw this as a chance to mimic these special patterns to engineer a new kind of foul-proof, bacteria-proof surface. It’s so good it’s even been to outer space.
The military was the first to subscribe to this technology. The Navy had a problem: Naval ships and submarines had a build-up of barnacles, oysters, and bacteria on the ship’s underwater hull that were dangerous (easier detection), expensive (more drag, increased fuel consumption that reduced speed by 10% and added costs of $1 billion), and unsustainable (increased greenhouse gases from increased fuel; and the solution they originally selected, a toxic biocide, not only killed the life clinging to the boat, but other marine life, too).
A better solution: a shark-inspired surface that prevented barnacles from attaching to ship hulls with no annihilation to the life around it. Big win: Repels bacteria. No chemicals. No heavy metals. Just adjusting the texture of the surface.
That’s why sharks are transforming our approach to medical technology. They create an inhospitable environment so bacteria choose not to grow there in the first place. This is a breakthrough: bacteria-proof surfaces (door handles, hospital railings, urinary catheters) are possible without toxic chemicals and without adding to microbial resistance. Because, while antibiotics can be hugely helpful, bacteria keep getting smarter, continue to evolve, and in many circumstances, outsmart the drugs designed to attack them. With sharkskin-inspired technology, you get rid of the bacteria versus killing them after the fact (not to mention wiping out the good bacteria that keeps us healthy).
This solution exists today. You can buy shark-textured films to add to door knobs or handrails to prevent hospital acquired infections. Even astronauts brought wound dressings with shark-inspired biofilm to space. According to California-based Sharklet Technologies who licenses shark-inspired surfaces to hospitals and medical devices, their first tests reduced algae transfer by more than 80% compared to smooth surfaces. As mysterious infections take hold, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note over 20,000 bacterial-related deaths per year and 2 million infections, this new surface helps us rethink how we can help fix some of our healthcare challenges without creating new ones.
Why spiders’ death traps are gifts for disappearing birds
Innovation: Spider inspired bird-safe glass
Big picture: For reducing preventable fatal bird window collisions (skyscrapers, universities, stadiums, private family homes); helping preserve biodiversity by saving ~ 1 billion birds every year.
Nature’s solution: Mimic the ultraviolet thread patterns found in Orb spider webs to create UV-reflecting bird-safe glass.
Behind the science: Commercial company called ORNILUX by Arnold Glas on shelves today (tested with American Bird Conservancy)
The intrigue + why it matters: I live in NYC. Access to wildlife is not a reason to live here, but sometimes we get close-ups of the most exquisite life on the planet. Unfortunately, most of them are dead. The killer: glass. Birds can’t see glass windows.
Songbirds. Hummingbirds. Raptors. Long-haul migrators. It’s hard for us to imagine their day, week, or year. Let’s zoom in on the migrators. They don’t just cross a country. These tiny titans cross the longitude and latitude lines covering our maps. They soar above the equator, cities, dogs, deserts, stonewalls, and high school football fields. They cross OCEANS. Some fly from the North Pole to the South Pole. Humanity’s top fighter jets couldn’t replicate many of their journeys without refueling or backup teams. Who we cast off as bird-brained navigate in ways impossible to us.
Ultimately, their bodies don’t fail them. We fail them.
Since birds can’t see glass, window reflections that appear to be safe blue skies become killer. Of all there is to be outraged over, there’s something about perfect warm bodies slamming into their deaths that haunts.
Spiders give us a solution. Birds easily see UV light that humans don’t. This life-saving glass has a mismatched pattern painted through it using UV light that is obvious to birds, invisible to humans. Humans can have their sleek architecture and birds can have their lives.
This is not some conservation fantasy. Bird-safe windows have been tested and approved by Stanford, Vassar College, Monterey Bay Aquarium, San Francisco’s Chase Center, and architectural companies like Guy Maxwell’s Ennead who have already woven this effective bio-inspired solution into their architecture. Their choices help show the world what is possible and safeguard the future of these epic, tiny birds whose journeys and lives may otherwise be mangled. The roughly one billion birds who die each year can now be protected with this invention–if we choose to use it.
So whether you’re a bird lover, hater, or barely notice them, this matters to you. Our futures are connected. Their vulnerability to collisions has a direct link to plummeting biodiversity loss and associated climate chaos. As of 2021, the extinction of plants and animals is moving 1000x faster than the natural rates before humans. With spider-inspired inventions we can help halt this jarring statistic and the dishonorable deaths that come along with it.
PS: For those not in the glass market who want to help avoid collisions, the Wild Bird Fund, a tiny magical bird hospital in NYC, recommends turning off your lights at night and marking your windows so glass is visible to birds (simple stickers, window screens and tape work wonders!).
How snakes help us live better — even on Mars
Slick startups and governments pressured to lead the world have turned to elephants, hummingbirds, cheetahs, manta rays, lobsters, and even sand fleas for their breakthroughs. Now jellyfish and snakes are the new faces disrupting robotic innovations and are likely to play a role in our future on earth and off.
Innovation: Sidewinder Rattlesnakes inspire next-generation robots that can operate in challenging terrain (like sand) without getting trapped
Big picture: For helping with search-and-rescue missions inaccessible or too dangerous for humans and creating new possibilities to lead the future of exploration on earth and off
Nature’s solution: Mimic the sidewinder’s unique dual motions of 1) undulating a wave down the length of their body and 2) making that same motion moving sideways
Behind the science: NASA; European Space Agency; US Military; Carnegie Mellon University; Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Stanford University; Zoo Atlanta; Georgia Tech; company called Eelume
The intrigue + why it matters: When you watch sidewinders move, you realize you’re watching something that you’ve never seen before. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you’ll want to watch this quick clip.
Their moves, not their lethal bite, are their greatest strength. They don’t get killed by sand.
This is important. Robots struggle in sand just like us. But sand-trapped robots on Mars freeze to death, and search-and-rescue robots who slip or get stuck fail their mission. With sidewinders, hard-to-reach places and far-off planets, so linked to life and lack of life, are within reach.
Their secret: Most snakes slither along from head to tail in S-shaped movements. Sidewinders do, too, and also jerk back and forth. Their vertical and horizontal movements are controlled independently, allowing them to grip the sand while also moving them forward. They’ve got swagger!
Engineers, biologists, and scientists are applying what they know about sidewinders’ biology and adaptations as the blueprint for advanced robots who move more efficiently, more safely, and can finally conquer the challenges of moving on difficult sandy hills without getting stuck or falling over. By adjusting the parts of their body that make contact with the ground, they gain stability leading to quicker response times, improved accuracy, and enhanced range. These improvements are important, because making robots is expensive; they are complicated and timely to produce; and they are increasingly used for risky, time-sensitive work where pounding hearts are waiting on the other side.
Rescue robots are not new: they have been used for disasters for years (they were on the scene at September 11 and Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster), but they had limitations. Even NASA gave up on their Martian robots stuck in sand.
Consider sidewinders the inspiration for the ultimate extreme off-road robot.
Now moving in pipes, crawling through tiny tunnels, scoping out caves, inspecting nuclear power plants, and probing collapsed buildings are now not only increasingly possible, but the likelihood of a rescue or valuable data retrieval are too. With robosnakes we will be better prepared to handle events like Miami’s Surfside condo collapse and the soccer team stuck in the Thai cave that captured the world’s attention (and the eternal natural disasters that are underreported or haven’t happened yet).
And what about other planets? Whether you want to move to Mars or not, Martian landscapes are prime sidewinder territory: dusty, sandy, hilly! A bit bigger than half the size of earth, Mars has canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and some of its volcanoes are 3x taller than Mt. Everest! The possibility of a world where robosnakes could help researchers ground us with invaluable insights into what life could have looked like on the red planet is almost here.
How brainless jellyfish push us to rethink exploration
Innovation: Jellyfish inspire highly-efficient soft exploratory robots that move safely in liquids
Big picture: For improving scientific exploration without threatening marine life or at-risk areas like delicate coral reefs and architectural sites
Nature’s solution: Mimic a jellyfish’s soft body and pulsating jet propulsion mechanism
Behind the science: Office of Naval Research; Harvard; MIT; CalTech; North Carolina State University; University of Southampton
The intrigue + why it matters: Jellyfish triple as blobs, hypnotic beauty queens, and powerful killers. They have inspired Nobel Prize winning medical breakthroughs and now hold secrets to the future of marine robots.
No brains, no heart, no blood, no bones. Yet we are transfixed by them. Some glow, some have 24 eyes, some defecate through their mouths, and some have figured how to be immortal. Read that again. They are > 95% water and still manage to hold titles for the most venomous creatures underwater and the most efficient swimmers. They pre-date the dinosaurs surviving here for over 500,000,000 years and only recently did we see how their bioluminescent glow adaptation can help identify Alzheimer’s and cancer breakthroughs. What a legacy.
Research teams are looking at jellyfish to build better robots, particularly looking to mimic their characteristic soft body and ability to move at fast speeds without high amounts of energy. The jellyfish’s signature bell shape allows them to contract and relax in order to propel or thrust themselves while also harnessing air channels and feeding currents. This technique is why they are one of the most efficient animals on the planet.
A lightweight, flexible, soft-bodied robot could be helpful in monitoring precious habitats, like coral reefs or delicate architectural treasures, that could get crushed by bigger, clunky, inflexible robots. As enchanting reefs and underwater worlds transform into lifeless graveyards due to warmer waters (the canary in the coal mine of climate change), we can’t afford to kill those hanging on with clumsiness, too. In addition to the incalculable life these natural wonders provide, they are also wild carbon sinks. They reverse climate change.
So while that signature sting keeps them at more than arms-length, jellyfish have earned their street cred for much more than that.
Outsmarting the next pandemic with skeletons
The pandemic has been an intervention in some ways. We’re living with unignorable proof revealing our interconnectedness–not only to each other, but to other animals. All of a sudden we can grasp what overtaking wild lands and wild creatures have to do with unleashing viruses that would otherwise be more safely quarantined in them. The future of humans, wildlife, and entire ecosystems are now more clearly entwined.
Seems counterintuitive, but what if we can prevent pandemics, outbreaks, and even superbugs with wildlife?
Innovation: Cicada wings inspire bacteria killing surfaces — without drugs or chemicals
Big picture: For preventing the spread of dangerous pathogens and superbugs that survive antibiotics with antibacterial surfaces and creating safer medical equipment (like implants) that help avoid deadly infections.
Nature’s solution: Mimic the cicada wing’s dense spiky microstructure patterns
Behind the science: University of Illinois; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Construction Engineering Research Laboratory; National Science Foundation; Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology
The intrigue + why it matters: They climb out of their own skin. Their eyes turn red. They live underground (for 17 years!) only to climb up through soil by the millions, buzz incessantly till they attract a mate, get it on, lay hundreds of eggs, spook many with their exoskeletons (even before they die!), then actually die. Now this quirky crew may give us a new way to help prevent killer infections and COVID-19 outbreaks.
Their wings are behind the breakthrough. While at a glance they may look ordinary, with a 3000x magnifying glass you’d notice dense spiky microstructures clustered on their wings. The architecture of these teeny spikes (called nanopillars) prevent bacteria from taking over by piercing and killing them before they have the chance to spread. As the journal nature puts it, their “insect wings shred bacteria to pieces.”
For cicadas, their wing texture helps them adapt to stay alive in a variety of environments and avoid predators by repelling light, dirt, and water. For humans, they are a new biomaterial to kill bacteria exclusively due to their physical structure.
So, even without chemicals, cicadas give us antibacterial surfaces simply due to the physical structure of the surface addressing a fundamental and increasing challenge in global health.
Which means that we have a new tool to help keep surfaces clean and minimize the spread of mysterious and very deadly antibiotic-resistant superbugs. This is important because our bodies are becoming immune to the drugs we’ve created to fight them. (To spotlight how critical a variety of strategies to support global health is, consider that drug resistance may cause 10 million deaths by 2050 and cost the global economy USD $100 trillion over the next 35 years.)
PS: Insects’ exoskeletons (what we saw strewn around after the cicada phenomenon this spring) are also inspiring 3D-printed “flexoskeleton” robots with versatile soft and rigid bodies.
What swarms teach us about leadership (without having a leader)
Innovation: Fish, Birds, and Insect Swarms | Swarm behavior inspire artificial intelligence (AI)
Big picture: For organizing groups of robots to cooperate and self-organize in larger teams and execute complex tasks in a quick, efficient, informed way. Impacts include: Artificial intelligence; search-and-rescue; space exploration; disaster response; reconnaissance; security; surveillance; mapping; humanitarian aid
Nature’s solution: Mimic the decentralized nature and behavior of a swarm
Behind the science: Harvard; Sandia National Laboratories; California State U Northridge; Northrop Grumman; Carnegie Mellon University; US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA); company called Encycle
The intrigue + why it matters: It’s like whispers of elusive poetry with heartbeats. It’s hard to make sense of as they seemingly orchestrate their movements without much thought, or as though there’s a single brain for the group, but the extraordinary science behind swarms and their unique ability to self-organize may hold key answers to artificial intelligence.
The whispered waves of magic we see are ripples of small decisions. Their leader? The entire group.
No CEOs exist in the bird, bee, fish, and world. Even queen bees don’t direct the hive — her purpose is laying eggs. Their superpower is they are equipped with highly-attuned senses that take in the information from their closest neighbors in real time to create a united decision that maximizes their wisdom as a group.
For most animals, this technique generally protects them from predators. For humans, flight patterns that look to clouds of bees, shimmers of herring, or mystifying clouds of starlings (watch 2-minutes of pure awe here) are now applied to swarm robotic missions that can self-assemble, cover more ground, and complete tasks all around better.
What does this look like in our world? Potential applications include enhanced research missions and a new reconnaissance tool for search-and-rescue teams to assess dangerous areas like fires, tornados, and quakes. For example, swarm robots could access tight areas unreachable by inspection planes or choppers; they can support first responders from a safer distance; and if swarm drones have a camera on them, they can scout dangerous areas and reveal locations of those trapped and show openings for response teams to access them.
Something to keep in mind: While drone swarms have the opportunity to save life, they also have the ability to take life. Some fear the techno-military possibilities with destructive weapons that are not instructed to operate ethically and may omit one of biomimicry’s most integral values: to emulate nature in a way that embodies biomimicry’s ethos element. We all have an inherent right to survive, we are all interconnected and depend on one another, and our innovations are most valuable when they minimize our negative impacts on Earth.
The unlikely designer disrupting fashion
Innovation: Spider-inspired sustainable textile fiber
Big picture: For transforming the way woven fabric materials are produced–without harsh chemicals, energy-intensive heat, and only water as a byproduct (1000x more efficient than plastic fibers).
Nature’s solution: Mimic spiders’ method of turning liquid into a fiber thread
Market Readiness: University of Oxford; commercial company Spintex Engineering (awarded 2021 Ray of Hope $100,000 prize!)
The intrigue + why it matters: Even a few years ago most of us wouldn’t group coal and catwalks together, but when it comes to the planet, they aren’t as far apart as we thought. Both fuels and fashion are front and center in climate breakdown — just one cleans up nicely.
Fur coats may have a bad reputation, but it turns out those jeans, tees, and silk little numbers aren’t so innocent. It’s complex, but in a nutshell: if it’s new, it’s likely killing our planet. If it’s recycled, it may be leaking. Fashion uses more energy than the aviation and shipping sectors combined. The industry emits > 2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas per year. That’s the economies of the UK, France, and Germany combined. Not to mention, the toxic chemicals for dyeing that outfit are behind 20% of global industrial water pollution.
This behind-the-curtain peek at the fashion world is hard to look at and inconsistent with its famously fresh face and unique power to make us feel (creative, liberated, sexy, fun, powerful). Consumers are catching on, demanding better, and disruptors that produce clothes that include ecological integrity threads are changing the game. We read about shoes made from plastic bottles, yoga pants made from air pollution, and now spiders are giving us real-deal sustainable fibers in a world of fakes.
Beyond the ethereal beauty of their daily webs (most orb spiders rebuild their masterpieces everyday), spider silk is one the toughest materials out there. Thread by thread, it is stronger by weight than high-grade steel. Spiders are truly master craftsmen.
But innovators aren’t using materials produced by actual spiders. Instead they are mimicking their process. Within a spider’s abdomen are spinnerets which turn liquid silk gel into a silk thread at room temperature. The room temperature is key, because it means they can create and scale up the textile without all the bad stuff (they don’t require heavy amounts of water, large amounts of polluting energy, or damaging chemicals). Water is the only byproduct. This new bio-inspired process is 1000 times more efficient than production processes for other man-made products.
This means the adaptations that keep spiders fed can also help us rethink materials that honor the planet, drive progress, and help solve massive sustainability challenges that impact us all.
Why we’re better off if our epoch goes extinct
If we struggle to understand ourselves, and quickly wipe out what makes us uncomfortable, then how can we expect to understand creatures without brains, with eight legs, with flesh-tearing jaws–or grasp that we need them? We do. For far more than the innovations listed here.
I’m not recommending that we ignore that they can be deadly. I urge us to make room for the chance that what we dismiss as exclusively dangerous could also be our ally. It’s not lost on me that our connection to the wild, cuddly and killer, makes us come alive in ways few things do.
We are in new territory summed up in a newer word: Anthropocene. If you’re wondering what that is, it’s a geological epoch defined by scars that have disfigured earth — caused by humans. Our home planet’s tipping point has a new meaning: anthropomass (stuff produced by humans), like cars and clothing outweighs living biomass like owls and rainforests. We’re facing climate damages over $600 trillion (that’s all the wealth that exists today x 2).
Money can’t fix it. We need nature.
We know what’s at stake. It’s an active decision to pursue innovations and strategies that honor life for the long-haul versus choosing quickies that lead to our next extinction. And if fact-based efforts and “last chance” climate emergency conferences have hardly moved the needle (COP26 summit agreements resulted in 0.1 degree C from future climate breakdown) then maybe fear, or the very real fear of losing what we love, will.
It’s our choice to think beyond our biases and what we narrowly label as strange or scary so we don’t overlook the lifesaving treasures buried in them.
And it’s our decision if we want to redefine the Anthropocene to mark integrity, resilience, hope, innovation, heart, interconnectedness, life.
Katie Losey works at the intersection of business and conservation. She believes powerful storytelling that speaks to both heart and head can be a persuasive tool to drive action and change minds. She is a director at Fragile Earth, a company focused on catalyzing a new energy era to benefit all life on Earth. Previously Katie led marketing at a travel company connecting others with wild places to help protect and champion them, landing her with orangutans in Borneo’s ancient rainforest, gliding alongside sharks in Cuba, and kayaking with humpback whales in Antarctica — mind-expanding experiences to explore the genius of biomimicry! She has been a member of The Explorers Club since 2015 and is pursuing her Biomimicry Graduate Certificate. Katie lives in NYC with her rescue dog Nelle. Connect with Katie on Instagram and LinkedIn.