Staying Warm: Learning From Nature’s Strategies

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.

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