After going for a walk through the Swiss Alps in 1941, electrical engineer George de Mestral noticed burrs stuck in his dog’s fur. As he untangled them, he noted the tiny barbs at the end of the burr’s spines and was inspired to create a fastener made of hooks and loops.
After he patented Velcro in 1955, it spread like wildfire—even to space. NASA was among the first to make use of the burr’s technology. A two-inch (5-cm) square of Velcro is secure enough to hold 175 pounds (80 kg)—or keep astronauts’ tools from floating away.
Trees don’t use pumps to transport fluid. Instead, as water evaporates from the leaves, a vacuum is created that pulls water upward from the roots via tiny vertical tubes called xylem.
In the spring, trees grow wider xylem to transport more water and nutrients to the growing leaves. The widest xylem are only half a millimeter across. Together, they can lift several hundred gallons of water in one day to the top of the world’s loftiest trees, some which measure more than 300 feet tall.
Animals regulate their body temperatures in surprising ways:
Over time, animals on different branches of the tree of life have developed various walking postures that affect their speed:
Just because they all have wings and flippers, doesn’t mean they’re closely related. The different internal structures of these fliers and swimmers tell us about their separate evolutionary histories:
© Jonas Merian
Legs—whether we have two, four, six, or hundreds—let us skitter and jump across the Earth’s uneven surface. Gravity pulls us down with each step, but our momentum and internal springs redirect this force to our advantage.
Scientists have long been working to mimic the complex biomechanics of a human leg, which use the Achilles tendon to store and release energy. The curved, carbon-fiber foot, while still not quite as efficient as a natural leg, possesses enough springiness that amputees can really run—and even compete in the Paralympic Games.
© The Field Museum, GN91867_46Bd
The right shape can boost your strength. For example, domes transmit force over their whole surface, helping bodies to withstand greater impact. So while eggshell is a thin, fragile material, its shape helps it withstand up to 90 pounds (40 kg) of downwards pressure before breaking.
Some domed creatures—like tortoises and horseshoe crabs—have stuck with this same shape for millions of years.
© Dusty Cline | Dreamstime.com
Worms have five hearts but no lungs. Instead, their hearts pump blood that carries oxygen absorbed directly through the skin.
But in addition to the pumping action of its hearts, a worm uses fluid under pressure to dig a path without the aid of a shovel. When muscles squeeze liquid-filled chambers along its body, the segments expand and contract to help the worm wedge its way through the earth.
© Antonella865 | Dreamstime.com
Methods that animals use to control temperature have inspired many human innovations.
For example, the airflow in African termite mounds influenced the design of the Eastgate Centre in Zimbabwe. The building needs neither artificial heating nor air conditioning because the building relies on chimneys like those of the termite mound, which allow warm air to escape out the top while cool night is drawn in from the bottom. As a result, the building uses 90% less energy than a conventional building.
© The Field Museum, GN91868_Ad
Field Museum scientist Mark Westneat and metal artist John Zehren created this working, life-sized model of the extinct fish Dunkleosteus. After measuring forces in the model, they calculated the bite force of the living creature as 1,200 pounds (540 kg)—one of the strongest bites of all time.
The model replicates the unique mechanism of a Dunkleosteus skull: four rotational joints connected into a four-bar linkage system. This enable the fish to open its mouth in one-fiftieth of a second, creating a powerful suction that pulled prey into its mouth before biting down.
© University of Michigan
Human gait is difficult to reproduce, because of our Achilles tendon, which releases energy like a spring as we run. MABEL runs upright, and can even recover from a stumble.
At 6.8 mph, MABEL is the world’s fastest two-legged robot with knees. Although she looks powerful, her most innovative feature helps her use less power. By building stretchy bands into her joints, her designers gave her the robot version of tendons.
© Professor Hilary Bart-Smith, University of Virginia
Designed and built by Hilary Bart-Smith and her team at the University of Virginia, this robotic manta ray is so lifelike that real fish accept it as one of their own. Biologists can use it to quietly monitor the conditions of life at sea and check in on endangered coral-reef species.
Other robotic flyers in the exhibition include RoboSeed, which mimics a maple seed and can be used to explore hard-to-reach locations like unexplored caves. The four-flippered Madeleine helps scientists test theories about how these swimmers evolved.
© Barry Peters
Perhaps one of nature’s oddest-looking creatures, the Hammerhead Shark is a hunting machine. Their heads are packed with pores that sense electricity, given off by prey’s contracting heart muscles.
The sharks use their sensitive snouts to scan the sand along the ocean floor. When they come within range of a hiding creature, its pulse enters their pores and signals their brains for a shark attack.