Biomimicry: the art of copying Mother Nature

bullet beak

When you look at a kingfisher’s beak and head, do you think of a bullet train? Japanese engineers did. They built a fast train, but there was an unforeseen problem: the blunt nose of the train didn’t move through air efficiently enough. Instead of cutting through, it pushed. In narrow tunnels the pushed-ahead air would compress and pressurize. As the train left the tunnel, the air would rapidly expand, resulting in a dish-rattling sonic boom.

Kingfishers deal with a much “thicker” medium than air. They regularly dive after fish, and if they pushed water ahead of themselves the way bullet trains pushed air, the resistance would make it difficult to capture anything. But their beaks gradually increase in diameter, enabling them to slice through the water so efficiently that the birds hardly make a splash.

Sure enough:

By modeling bullet train noses on kingfisher beaks, West Japan Railway Company engineers created the 500 series, which entered service in 1997. The trains are quieter, 10 percent faster and use 15 percent less electricity.

Wired has a slideshow of “9 Design Tricks Borrowed From Biology,” and while I think the kingfisher example is the best, the bendy concrete is pretty cool too.


About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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4 Responses to Biomimicry: the art of copying Mother Nature

  1. Kugai says:

    It’s always interesting to see the things we can learn from nature.

  2. Malkor says:

    The greatest thing yet to be copied from nature is still in development. Namely artificial spider-silk which would be as untearable as the actual arachnid product.

    If they manage to manufacture that stuff it will be used for the cables of a space elevator to orbit. oO

  3. Ana_ñ says:

    Hello, olá, hola!
    You have picked the most eye-catching, but they are all fascinating. The shark skin based material is also pretty cool: The company ( explains that the U.S. Office of Naval Research solicited the expert (who was visiting Pearl Harbour) to find new antifouling strategies to reduce use of toxic paints in order to keep algae from coating the hulls of submarines and ships. He asked which slow moving marine animals don’t foul and took an impression of shark skin. The resulting material reduced algae settlement by 85%. And from here to bacteria; let’s prevent them from growing instead of killing them (so, no bacterial resistance).
    I must go now, I have many posts to catch up on… 🙂

  4. Lilaine says:

    When one of the principles of aeronautics (based, of course, on Nature observation and … some resulting physics concepts 🙂 ) is applied to land transportation …. faster, more secure, and less energy-consuming.
    “Citius, Altius, Fortius” really isn’t only for jocks … but for geeks and nerds, too 😉
    Before anybody could notice it, somebody will be flying at warp speed in the Delta Quadrant…

    PS : I seem to recall some aerial public means of transportation that has been flying for nearly thirty years, with a long conic beak and a slender body, whose dish-rattling sonic boom you could hear when it broke the sound barrier … twice !! 🙂

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