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How Mother Nature’s ‘Inventions’ Are Changing Our Lives

The first person that I can recall wearing Velcro was F. Wayne King, the eminent naturalist and herpetologist who is now Curator Emeritus at the  Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville. I remember walking with Dr. King down the hallowed halls of the University of Florida’s museum looking at archived skeletal and fluid preserved...

The first person that I can recall wearing Velcro was F. Wayne King, the eminent naturalist and herpetologist who is now Curator Emeritus at the  Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

I remember walking with Dr. King down the hallowed halls of the University of Florida’s museum looking at archived skeletal and fluid preserved specimens of crocodilians and other herpetofauna from around the world. It occurred to me, as he graciously toured me around the building, that he probably walked these long, off-exhibit halls with great regularity, and Velcro straps on his shoes made a lot of sense.

I have great respect for Dr. King and admire his practicality.  It’s really not terribly important why he may have chosen Velcro over shoe laces. What is important with respect to this article is that the first hook-and-loop fastener that was made commercially available—what we call Velcro—was invented using biomimicry back in 1941.

The Swissman Georges de Mestral thought of the mechanism behind Velcro after returning from a hunting trip with his dog in the Swiss Alps.  He noticed that the burrs (seeds) of burdock fastened readily to his clothes and his dog’s fur.  Under microscopic examination he saw that hundreds of tiny hooks on the burrs stuck on to anything with a loop.

Georges figured out a way to mechanize the hook and loop apparatus with nylon (which had been recently invented) and the rest is history. It took almost a decade, but with much persistence he created Velcro, for which he received a patent in 1955.

From friction-reducing sharkskin to gecko tape, inventors around the world are relying on Mother Nature’s magnificent design for the creation of new products, many of which are ecologically sound and environmentally sustainable.

One of the champions of biomimicry is the San Diego Zoo Global (the Zoological Society of San Diego). The zoo is at the forefront of teaching and raising awareness about biomimicry. They have reached out to students, researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, and environmentally conscious corporations looking for green solutions to today’s most important problems via sustainable technology.

On April 14-15th, the World Famous San Diego Zoo  will host the 2011 Biomimicry Conference, their third biomimicry conference. The two -day conference presented by mirasol will address innovation inspired by nature, that is both efficient and sustainable.

Helen Cheng, one of the zoo’s biomimicry coordinators, cites biomimicry as “a key driver of innovation” and a “true economic game changer.” Dollar signs flashed in my eyes when she mentioned that in North America alone, the emerging field would make a three hundred billion dollar impact in just over a decade or more.

The conference  will not only cater to local universities and industries, but it will draw from a pool of innovators from around the globe.

When I look to pioneering and enterprising zoological institutions, San Diego Zoo Global is one at or near the very top of my list. They set the standard in many ways for zoological institutions. The zoo reaches a huge market, but to conserve biodiversity it is essential to include everyone, and frankly some are incentivized by a growing profit margin.  I think that San Diego Zoo Global has made an exemplary effort to make people aware that what is good for the planet is good for the people living on it, and this is just one example.

In talking to the CEO of the Biomimicry Institute, Bryony Schwan, I learned that biomimicry is more than just imitating structural constructs that we see in nature, rather it is a way of approaching problems and making sense of the world. After all, nature has been around much longer than we have and there are infinite ways of solving problems through a myriad of designs created by Mother Nature.

Bryony shared some complicated biomimetic case studies that illustrate how biomimicry can help businesses restructure themselves and become more efficient. From using ecosystems’ feedback loops to the biomechanics of filter feeding in flamingoes, businesses are poised to reinvent themselves and their organizational structures.  It seems to me that a biomimetic approach may be optimal when you think of how these biological analogues have survived over evolutionary time.

Why not defer to Mother Nature.

Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in conservation/veterinary preventive medicine from Ohio State University and a master’s degree in zoology. He is a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), a member and coordinator for education and outreach for the Bear Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, correspondent editor and captive bear news correspondent for International Bear News, and member of the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society, which promotes high standards for wild carnivore care and welfare among private sanctuaries in North America. He is the creator of the Zoo Peeps brand which hosts a blog for the global zoo and aquarium community and two wildlife conservation oriented radio programs. He enrolled in clinical degree programs in veterinary medicine and has been on leave to pursue interests in animal management/husbandry science and conservation education.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Jordan Carlton Schaul
With training in wildlife ecology, conservation medicine and comparative psychology, Dr. Schaul's contributions to Nat Geo Voices have covered a range of environmental and social topics. He draws particular attention to the plight of imperiled species highlighting issues at the juncture or nexus of sorta situ wildlife conservation and applied animal welfare. Sorta situ conservation practices are comprised of scientific management and stewardship of animal populations ex situ (in captivity / 'in human care') and in situ (free-ranging / 'in nature'). He also has a background in behavior management and training of companion animals and captive wildlife, as well as conservation marketing and digital publicity. Jordan has shared interviews with colleagues and public figures, as well as editorial news content. In addition, he has posted narratives describing his own work, which include the following examples: • Restoration of wood bison to the Interior of Alaska while (While Animal Curator at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center and courtesy professor at the University of Alaska) • Rehabilitation of orphaned sloth bears exploited for tourists in South Asia (While executive consultant 'in-residence' at the Agra Bear Rescue Center managed by Wildlife SOS) • Censusing small wild cat (e.g. ocelot and margay) populations in the montane cloud forests of Costa Rica for popular publications with 'The Cat Whisperer' Mieshelle Nagelschneider • Evaluating the impact of ecotourism on marine mammal population stability and welfare off the coast of Mexico's Sea of Cortez (With Boston University's marine science program) Jordan was a director on boards of non-profit wildlife conservation organizations serving nations in Africa, North and South America and Southeast Asia. He is also a consultant to a human-wildlife conflict mitigation organization in the Pacific Northwest. Following animal curatorships in Alaska and California, he served as a charter board member of a zoo advocacy and outreach organization and later as its executive director. Jordan was a member of the Communication and Education Commission of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (CEC-IUCN) and the Bear Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (BSG-SSC-IUCN). He has served on the advisory council of the National Wildlife Humane Society and in service to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA Bear TAG). In addition he was an ex officio member of council of the International Association for Bear Research and Management. Contact Email: