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Thermographic image. Copyright TService/Arno Vlooswijk,

Thermographic image. Copyright TService/Arno Vlooswijk,

It’s chilly here in my home state of Montana, as it is throughout the northern regions. As I sit inside, watching snowflakes fall, I’m grateful for my warm, dry home. But outside, there are millions of animals and plants that have to tough out the cold, and survive without burning fossil fuels. Maybe we can learn some strategies from them to be more energy efficient while still staying warm.hownature_frog_make02

In my previous article, I wrote about AskNature and its more than 1,600 biological strategies that could inspire more sustainable and innovative designs. When applying biomimicry, you first have to figure out what your design needs to do. That is, what is its function? Examples I gave included aerodynamics and UV-reflective materials.

This time I’ll introduce some of AskNature’s strategies by giving you a tour around a particular function–staying warm.

There are many reasons why we might want to keep something warm. We could extend battery life by keeping them from getting cold. We can save energy by preventing heat loss from our clothing or our buildings, or by moving air around. We have several sets of themed strategies on AskNature, one of which is called Staying Warm When It’s Cold.

Scroll through the slideshow of 26 strategies and when one interests you, click on “Visit strategy page” for more details. As I looked at them recently, there were some favorites that caught my eye because they reveal patterns found among multiple species. One pattern is using a counter-current heat exchange, such as that used by the gray whale and tuna. Another pattern has to do with the arrangement of blood vessels near the skin of species like bats and elephants. Insulation is another common strategy, done by different species in a variety of ways such as blubber, hair, feathers, and physically clustering together.

One comment I’ve heard several times is that we humans already do these things, such as make insulation. After all, we humans are clever. So why look at nature for something we’ve already figured out?

By studying nature’s strategies, we can improve on our current designs, come up with new approaches, and in some cases completely change the question we’re asking. Just look at what we can learn from polar species like the emperor penguin with its specialized feathers and the polar bear with its unique fur. We could learn to distribute heat better by learning from jackrabbit ears, emperor penguin behavior and sycamore seed autorotation. And someone has already emulated the humidity sensor of the Hercules beetle.

Hercules beetle. Photo by Jessie Kiesow.

Hercules beetle. Photo by Jessie Kiesow.

When you look at these strategies, you’ll notice that we’ve provided some application ideas. That’s the fun, creative part of biomimicry. Another other fun part is that doing biomimicry means always having permission to go outdoors.

What organisms in your neighborhood use warming strategies, and what could you learn from them? In the comments, please share your responses, including any application ideas from your local organisms or any of the 26 strategies on AskNature. Go wild. Nature does.

Sherry Ritter

Sherry Ritter

Sherry Ritter is a biologist, writer, and educator living in Montana. Before getting involved with biomimicry, she was a wildlife ecologist with state wildlife agencies in Wyoming and Idaho, and worked for the U.S. Forest Service. Biomimicry fits her life-long interest in organisms’ adaptations to survive.



  1. […] Biomimicry prende lezioni dalla natura e li applica per creare progetti più sostenibili e innovative. Esplorare una serie di strategie a tema su che si concentra sulla funzione di stare al caldo. Incontra pinguini imperatore, orsi polari, scarabei Ercole, e jackrabbits che hanno strategie di sopravvivenza che possono ispirare i disegni più efficienti sul piano energetico per stare al caldo quando fuori fa freddo. […]

  2. sherryritternature says:

    It might be poor manners to comment on my own post, but I just have to share my experience yesterday. I was out for a walk at 14 deg F. After a week of sub-zero (sub -18 C) temps, the river near my home had ice floes on it. Suddenly, an American Dipper (aka water ouzel, genus Cinclus) came flying low up the river, then landed in the freezing water among the ice floes. It dove underwater several times looking for insects, each time coming up looking dry and perfectly comfortable.The dipper is a small bird, about the size of a European Starling. Yet it handles these temperatures like it’s summertime. How does it do it? Can we learn from its feather structure and water-proofing to create a more effective waterproofing material for keeping heat in and cold and water out?

    1. I’ve been observing nature with an eye to warmth, too. It’s been in the high teens at night here in Northern California (cold for us) and yet my chickens seem to do fine. I guess chicken down is as good as goose down for staying warm.

      1. sherryritternature says:

        Hi Stett, The best down is found on ducks and geese. We have lots of down pillows and comforters, which is using the down from those birds. Chickens and similar birds like grouse have another type of feather, called an afterfeather, which is a miniature feather attached to the base of their body feathers. The afterfeather provides an extra layer of insulation. When you look at a down feather, it doesn’t look like much, but there’s something we can learn there about structure that might be useful for improved insulating materials.

  3. Paul Fast says:

    I have just heard that horses have at least 17 levels of loft available to them to stay warm. As a scientist I suspect that they exhibit continous conbtrol of loft which were not measureable by the technique they used. Does the polar bear have that mechanism as well?

    1. sherryritternature says:

      Hi Paul,
      I haven’t heard about the horses’ multiple levels of loft, but I’m not surprised that there are many levels and similar levels would be expected with other mammals. There are tiny arrector pili muscles associated with hair follicles that contract to raise hairs up. We humans don’t have much control over them, but we have them too, noticeable when we get goosebumps. Dogs raise the hair on their backs when feeling threatened, pronghorn antelope twitch the white hairs on their rumps as they run from danger, and animals can choose the level of insulation they need.

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