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What is Biomimicry?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Biomimicry, also called bionics, is a branch of study which focuses on using nature as an inspiration to solve problems faced by the humans on Earth. People have been practicing biomimicry for centuries, but it has become a topic of special interest in the modern world in the hopes that it could be a driving force behind more sustainable design. Many companies have invested significant funds in biomimicry studies, which look at new ways to design everything from solar panels to textiles.

Chances are high that you have an example of biomimicry in your close vicinity. Velcro, for example, is probably one of the best-known examples of this branch of inquiry, supposedly developed by a scientist who noted that burrs had amazing abilities when it came to sticking to textiles. Biomimicry has also been used to do things like redesign buildings based on insect mounds, which are designed to hold temperatures at stable levels, and using leaves as inspiration for solar panels, to increase the amount of energy which could be collected from the sun.

The term biomimicry literally translates as “imitation of life,” but this is an oversimplistic definition of biomimicry. The idea is not to imitate nature perfectly, but to use ideas from nature to inspire human solutions. People who work in this field believe that nature has the experience of centuries, and that therefore it is possible that nature has engineered some very ingenious, efficient, and smart solutions to problems it has faced. These solutions, in turn, could be used to inform research on human issues.

Biomimicry has a heavy focus on sustainability, efficiency, and rethinking the way that we do things. For example, people who do research in biomimicry often focus on the idea of garbage; in nature, there is no true garbage, as things are constantly recycled and retooled to make them useful. Researchers suggest that nature's approach to “waste” should be adapted to the human lifestyle, developing things which have multiple potential uses, and materials which can break down when they have outlived their usefulness.

Someone who wants to work in the field of biomimicry may come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Engineers and people with backgrounds in the hard sciences are common, as are students of environmental studies, design, and biology. Often, a team of individuals works together to achieve a common goal, determining together what they want an invention to do, and then thinking about the best way to accomplish that, using examples from nature as a starting point.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All The Science researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By letshearit — On Sep 06, 2011

One of the most amazing examples of biomimicry that they are currently working on is changing how planes fly. Apparently there has been a lot of research put into understanding why birds fly in a V-formation and as far as scientists can tell, it actually helps them save energy.

The birds create an updraft, which helps the birds behind them stay up in the air easier. The birds just switch positions so no one bird is exerting itself too much.

This is an amazingly clever way nature has managed to conserve energy. Scientists think that if airplanes fly together in formation, and use the same techniques that they will be able to save on fuel, which means (hopefully) lower ticket prices for all.

By manykitties2 — On Sep 05, 2011

Biomimicry is a great topic to choose if you are working on a paper for school. There are just so many case studies you can focus on because so many attempts have been made to learn from nature.

Some of my favorite examples of biomimicry are the office building that was modeled after a termite den and probably the most famous, how Velcro was modeled after the common burr.

In the case of the office building, apparently the design of termite dens makes them ideal at temperature control. This design cut the heating costs of the office building tremendously, as well as the cooling costs.

By live2shop — On Sep 05, 2011

Far back in ancient times, people were interested in observing nature and using it to improve their life.

I think a lot of people and especially children have always been masters at noticing plants, animals and sea creatures. Some of the interest was just pure curiosity. Sometimes, they were looking to nature to help them figure out a human need.

People probably noticed early on that nature runs on sunlight and everything in nature is recycled.

We've already started to use these two concepts.

By BabaB — On Sep 04, 2011

Isn't this a fascinating article. Imagine all the millions and billions of years nature has been working and improving its creations.

I didn't know that the field of biomimicry was becoming so important and that so many kinds of professions are working on it.

It's hard to imagine that by studying the plants, animals and sea life, we can use nature's ideas to solve some of our human problems.

It's sounds like a fascinating area to study. It could be a great project for classrooms.

By Calvin77 — On Sep 04, 2011

I think this article is right -- nature has been around for so long, why not use it as inspiration for our creations? It has lots of amazing things in it – like birds and bugs. I notice that a lot of the little robots that are being made imitate bugs – because of the way their bodies are built.

Helicopters are my favorite example of biomimicry. They are inspired from dragonflies, but than made more efficient. Helicopters have so much maneuverability, they are unmatched by anything -- except their original, the dragonfly.

I never knew that leaves were the inspiration for solar panels. I guess that makes sense technology wise. Great article!

By nony — On Sep 03, 2011

@SkyWhisperer - I agree. I think that biomimicry design would be a fascinating field of study.

Personally, I believe it raises deeper philosophical questions. If we are looking to nature for patterns of design to solve our most pressing ecological and cultural problems, is it possible all of this has somehow arisen by chance? Anyway, that question is for another day.

Suffice it to say that I believe all of the answers to our world’s problems are in the natural world around us. I even read a book once about ants and their societal and organizational structure; it was fascinating and gave us a glimpse of how societies can be productive with limited resources.

By SkyWhisperer — On Sep 03, 2011

My first introduction to the term bionics came with the television show The Six Million Dollar Man, about the world’s “first bionic man.” I must have misunderstood the term bionic; I thought it meant something having to do with robots, or merging biology and technology.

After reading this article I am fascinated by the idea that it means studying nature to come up with answers for technology. Honestly, I’d like to study this subject some more, perhaps by reading a biomimicry book or something, because right now my mind is racing with ideas.

In my field of specialty, computer programming, I can think of several applications. There is a lot of research going on in neural networks right now, which aims to mimic how the human brain thinks and apply it to programming models. It’s a fascinating field which holds a lot of promise in software development.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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