We humans are proud of our accomplishments in science, technology, the arts, and music. And, we have a right to be proud: the technological wonders of the last century have radically changed our world and benefited us enormously. While basking in our accomplishments, though, it behooves us to acknowledge the fact that we have used the natural world as a model for many of our achievements. Many scientists spend a lifetime studying and learning from the wisdom expressed everywhere in creation. In the fields of “engineering, chemistry, ballistics, aerodynamics – in fact in almost every area of human endeavor – nature has been there first” and the natural world is “infinitely more economical of resources and generally superior in performance” than our best efforts (Felix Paturi. 1976. Nature, Mother of Invention. Harper & Row p. 1).Human navigational experts have reached a level of technology that enables us to accurately sail across an ocean to reach a minuscule island, yet birds can migrate for multi-thousands of miles with such accuracy that they land on the same nesting sites each year. The complex navigational equipment birds use to achieve this feat weighs next to nothing. We have, so far, only imperfectly copied their system; our airplanes use navigation equipment that can weigh a ton and cost a fortune.
Humans are proud of discovering ways of detecting magnetic fields that we have put to use in thousands of ways. Yet research into animal behaviour has recently found that many animals possess magnetic field sensitivity (a sixth sense) that they use for such purposes as backup navigation systems. Bees expertly use the sun as a compass to make navigational calculations. At night or on very cloudy days, they rely on extensive patterns of polarized light in the sky. And when those patterns are blocked or diminished by clouds, bees use a third, non-celestial reference system to get themselves home: the earth’s magnetic field.
Many creatures are designed to run, fly, glide, and even parachute to the earth, all engineering marvels that humans have now effectively copied. Humans brag about our airplanes, but compared to birds, they are poorly maneuverable. The idea of flying first came from birds, and flying improvements were also inspired by flying creatures. Dragonflies can carry as much as fifteen times their own weight as they travel through the air, yet most high-performance aircraft cannot carry a load much more than their own weight. Intrigued, scientists studied the dragonfly wings and found that they function by generating lift by producing an airflow “whirlwind.” Efforts are now being made to apply this principle by designing aircraft wings that can “whirl the air” to produce greater lift.
Owls have special curved feathers on the front row of their wings that change the direction of the air as it flows past, allowing them to fly at slower speeds than most other birds. Slower flight is also quieter ? obviously of great value in hunting prey at night. Owls can sneak up on small game such as rabbits and mice with nary a whisper and whisk away what will shortly become their dinner. Owl studies exert a big influence on the design of airplanes and helicopters so that not only will these craft fly faster in air, but also they will be able to fly at much slower speeds than presently. The advantages would be enormous: a few of the more obvious ones include less noise, shorter runways, and less costly airports.
We take pride in our modern jet engines, but octopuses have effectively used jet propulsion eons before us. They expand the muscular “sack” in their streamlined body to suck water in, then vigorously contract it to force a water jet spray out of a small, welldesigned opening with enough force to propel them forward. Alternate expansion and contraction of their muscular sacks effectively jet propel octopi through their watery world.
Humans have developed radar and sonar systems to guide their planes safely through fog and their ships through water. Bats, however, have effectively used this miracle of modern science (radar echo location) for eons. Setting blindfolded bats loose in a dark room that was strung with many fine, silken threads, revealed that they could effortlessly dart about without striking or breaking a single thread. Such experiments were first carried out in 1793 by the Italian monk Spallanzari who confirmed that bats were using sonar because they flew in confused patterns if one ear was plugged.
We now know that bats use ultrasonic vibrations that range from 12 to 120 kilohertz (humans hear from 20 to 20,000 hertz, a fraction of what bats use). Bats emit supersonic sound pulses (as many as sixty per second) that hit objects and bounce back to their ears. An accurate measure of the time required for the echo to return is used by the bats to calculate the location of objects. More amazing still, when bats send out their signal, their ear muscles automatically shut off their normal hearing so that their radar picks up only the guiding echoes.
The echo-location system used by dolphins allows them to be as skillful in water as bats are in air. Dolphins can avoid slim metal rods equally well in the day or night – and they can even distinguish between different fish of the same size by echo-location. Dolphins also use their system of navigation for communication. They can obtain a panoramic view of their environment by producing as many as 100 sound bursts per second – while scanning their head to receive information from a large area in front of them.
Humans are proud of the many kinds of clocks we have invented, clocks that come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and accuracies. Nevertheless many plants and animals have built-in clocks that use a mechanism that still intrigues scientists. Some crabs can tell time, a fact known because they react to tide cycles – but if moved they still react with the same accurate timing. Their physical reaction is not due to perceiving time from the environment, but their own internal built-in clock. Even plants such as algae operate on cycles, and if put in a different environment, the same cycle persists.
Fiddler crabs change colour to camouflage themselves as the tide goes out, an ability not linked to the tide, but to the animal’s internal clock. The cycle occurs even if they are removed far from the ocean. The cycle is also not linked to a twenty-four hour day, but occurs fifty minutes later every twenty-four hours. Only the start of the cycle is connected to the particular locality in which the crab lives. The cycle is set when the crab is born and, once set, accurately corresponds with the tide until it dies.
The ability to travel on all types of terrain existed only in the last century with the invention of snowmobiles, four-wheel-drive jeeps, and balloon-tire vehicles. Smooth travel on really rough terrain, though, has so far eluded our best engineers. Thus researchers have turned to daddy-long-legs for inspiration. The ability of these arachnids to coordinate their jointed legs to traverse smoothly across extremely uneven surfaces, has helped in the development of ‘walking machines’ designed to carry people across terrain presently accessible mainly by helicopters. Daddy-long-legs have effortlessly solved some of the most frustratingly complex problems which engineers and roboticists are still trying to solve. Lifting up their legs in order to traverse flat terrain is relatively easy, but a device capable of making the constant adjustments needed to “walk” across an uneven surface is a very difficult accomplishment. Spring-loaded tires absorb some bumps, as do vehicles that can toss and turn easily, but researchers are hoping to develop non-wheeled devices that can walk across ocean floors or distant planets. Ohio State University’s Robert McGee noted that we know that it works well in nature, and are now trying to reproduce it. To duplicate the daddy-long-legs’ technical achievement, McGee and other researchers are analyzing the animal’s movement.
To do this, researchers filmed the progress of the arachnids across rough terrain constructed from wooden blocks of different sizes. They then studied the logic of the animals’ biological programming and, from this data, inferred the organization of the nervous system. Next, they attempted to reproduce the mechanical aspects of the feat. The researchers found that the eyes of the animal were not essential for navigation, rather they use their longest pair of legs as “feelers” to sweep the ground ahead. They then program each leg to stop at a different point so as to keep the body level. After years of research, compared to the average arachnid, walking robots are a bunch of pitiful shufflers, but rapid improvements may be expected as computer technology advances.
We cannot conclude from these marvels that the working of natural law, time and chance alone produced it all. When we see the enormous intelligence implanted in so-called unreasoning creatures, we appreciate that they are the result of wisdom and power that designed them. Many human inventions only poorly copy God’s creations – and our imitations took the best minds, and centuries to develop. Since scientists know more of these wonders of creation than others, they, of all persons, should vividly see with their eyes of understanding the great wisdom and power of the Creator who made all things.
Subscribe to Dialogue