Nature Inspired Design: Biomimicry and Monarchs

By Amber Barnes, Wildlife Conservation Ecologist, Pollinator Partnership

Humans have been inspired by nature for centuries. While that inspiration is often manifested through visual or written works of art, the natural world also has much to teach us about technological innovation. Many of the problems we face today have already been solved by nature. The process of finding solutions to humanity’s problems through the study of nature and applying them to the creation of materials, structures, and systems is called biomimicry. While this term may or may not be new to you, the concept certainly isn’t. In fact, each of us probably have multiple examples of nature inspired designs in our homes right now, with the most prolific probably being Velcro. That now common hook and loop fastening design is thanks to a Swiss engineer that after a walk through the woods, observed burs attached to his dog’s fur. He studied the natural design of this seed dispersal mechanism and after much trial and error developed both the product and company named Velcro.

What does this have to do with monarch conservation? Well, it’s much harder to learn lessons from an organism or natural process if the habitat or species in question is negatively impacted and potentially threatened by our actions. Whether it’s the potential life-saving qualities of a rainforest plant or the microstructure of a butterfly’s wing, conservation of biodiversity is key to securing the wealth of knowledge that we are still yet to unlock.

As is turns out, Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths, and skippers), including monarch butterflies, are wonderful muses that we can thank for the inspiration of many new designs and processes. Researchers are discovering a treasure trove of information through the study of not only the anatomy of these insects, but also their biological processes and how they interact with the world around them. Conservation is important because preserved specimens alone are not adequate for understanding things like flight, development, or the natural production of chemical compounds.

The physical and biological structures, functions, and designs of Lepidoptera are informing all sorts of technological advancements. Through the study of their wings, the common rose butterfly is being used to learn how to develop more efficient solar panels. Monarchs have inspired the redesign of wind turbine blades and are influencing the aeronautics industry who aim to develop quieter propellers through an application of lessons learned from ‘butterfly acoustical skin’. The study of monarchs and other species’ proboscises (tongue-like structures) is helping researchers better understand fluid mechanics and how to develop microfluidic probes which may improve medical and forensic sciences. Scientists are also studying the adhesive secretions that some moths produce to stick their eggs to their host plants, with hopes to mimic this natural product to create everyday adhesives or discover specialty biomedical applications.

Nature is full of beauty, wonder, and ingenuity. Species all over the world have adapted to the ecosystems and conditions of their region through millennia of natural selection, and have many lessons to teach us about adapting and overcoming the challenges we face with solutions that are inspired and in harmony with the natural world. By conserving monarchs and the habitat on which they rely, we’re securing a future of discovery and innovation through the field of biomimicry. To learn more about this field of study, check out The Biomimicry Institute and click here to read an excellent article by the Smithsonian that takes a deeper look at this subject.

Published 03/23/20