Nature knows best

White Bellied Woodpecker
Shot in Kabini, Karnataka, this image of a White-bellied Woodpecker Dryocopus javensis was intentionally shot at a slow, shutter speed (1/45 sec, f5.6, 500 mm. lens, Nikon D700) to blur the head and neck movement, underscoring the incredible speed (around 20 times per second) at which the beak hits the tree.
Photo: Baiju Patil / Sanctuary Photolibrary

Those who are inspired by a model other than Nature, a mistress above all masters, are labouring in vain.
— Leonardo Da Vinci

This woodpecker is doing what woodpeckers do best. And every decision-maker in the world should sit up and take notice. Not because of the unquestionable aesthetics, but because woodpeckers and other wild species hold vital clues on how countries can be run, people can be fed and even on how companies can profit without waging a losing war against nature.

Much before we made our appearance, woodpeckers had, for instance, solved such problems as how to avoid a concussion, something rugby players and race-car drivers are only recently learning from the bird, which has also helped design hammers that reduce elbow damage and shock absorbers that can withstand massive deceleration.

Virtually every problem that might imaginably confront humanity has already been solved through the most exacting field trials ever carried out since the dawn of life — evolution. No one put it better than that illustrious student of nature, Janine Benyus: “Biomimicry is simply taking the genius of the natural world and learning from it.”

It’s not a new concept. Ayurveda accepts that ‘nature knows best’. Da Vinci and the Wright brothers studied birds to design flying machines. Architects are now using passive cooling, after borrowing the idea from termites. NASA uses powerful ‘gecko-tape’ emulating the feet of lizards that walk on ceilings. Wind turbine designers have even modelled blades (bumps/tubercules and all) by studying humpback whale flippers. One of the latest commercial biomimicry applications is ‘superhydrophobicity’, a surface coating inspired by lotus leaves that causes water to bead on the surface, collect and then magically discard contaminants. And one of the most popular biomimicry examples is that of the ‘Speedo Fatskin’ swimsuit, inspired by shark skin, which helped Mark Phelps win eight Olympic medals by reducing aqua-drag.

More? George de Mestral took his dog out for a walk and while picking seed-bearing burrs from matted fur came up with the billion-dollar Velcro idea. The 13th century mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci, famed for the ‘Fibonacci numbers’ (a sequence starting with 0 and 1, with each subsequent number being the sum of the previous two, namely — 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and so on) discovered that sunflowers, pine cones, pineapples and virtually every flower uses Fibonacci numbers to determine the number of petals and the angle of seed spirals.

People are already making a fortune by using the mathematics of nature to predict bull and bear trends in stock markets. While accountants play with nature-math for risk analyses, composers use it to write complicated musical scores.

Back to the woodpecker with its elastic beak, and spongy shock-absorbing skull bone, which works with its cerebrospinal fluid to suppress vibrations. If one were to decipher the rat-a-tat of its beak, intelligently, the message it is probably sending to us, loud and clear, is: “Nature knows best.”

First published in Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXXI No. 6, December 2011

Bittu Sahgal

Editor at Sanctuary Asia
Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Asia, India's premier wildlife and ecology magazine.
Bittu Sahgal

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Bittu Sahgal

Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary Asia, India's premier wildlife and ecology magazine.