Imitating Designs From Nature

Photograph by: Robert Clark, National Geographic April 2008

It seems a wonder that toucans don't fall on their faces, so enormous are the beaks of these South American birds. One large species, the toco toucan, has an orange-yellow bill six to nine inches long, about a third of the bird's length. But the toucan's beak is ingeniously designed to be both strong and light. Marc Andr`e Meyers, a materials scientist at the University of California, San Diego, thinks its two-part construction could be adapted for use in the automotive and aviation industries to offer protection from crashes.

"Toucan beaks are beautiful structures," he says. "The surface is made of keratin, the same material in fingernails and hair. But the outer layer isn't a solid structure. It's actually many layers of tiny hexagonal plates, overlapping like shingles on a roof. The interior is different from the shell, made of bone. It consists of a light yet rigid foam made of little beams and membranes. And some areas of the beak are hollow." Born in Brazil, Meyers sometimes went hunting with his father and once found the skull of a toucan. "The beak was so strong and light; I stored the idea away for years," he says. --John Eliot

Eliot, John. "Power Beak." National Geographic (June 2006).


Almost all living organisms are uniquely adapted to the environment in which they live, some so well that scientists study them in hopes of replicating their natural designs in products and technologies for humans. This process--called biomimetics, biomimicry, or bionics--is the crossroads where nature and engineering meet.

Velcro is perhaps the best example of biomimetics. In 1948 a Swiss scientist, George de Mestral, removed a bur stuck to his dog's fur and studied it under a microscope. Impressed by the stickiness of the bur's hooks, he copied the design, engineering a two-piece fastener. One piece has stiff hooks like that of the prickly seedcase, while the other has soft loops that allow the hooks to adhere. De Mestral named his invention Velcro--a combination of the words "velour" and "crochet."

Mueller, Tom. "Biomimetics." National Geographic (April 2008), 68-91.

Other Resources
Centre for Biomimetics and Natural Technologies

Biomimicry Institute

Science in School


Biomimetics, University of Reading

Hooper, Rowan. "Ideas Stolen Right From Nature." Wired (November 2004)

Pellegrino, Sergio. "Deployable Structures." SpringerWien, 2001