by Mary Hansel

Welcome to Critter Corner, a place where we can learn about amazing species we share our planet with. Do you have a favorite critter you’d like to tell us about? Let’s focus on ferreting out that which “transpires beneath that which appears1. In this context, I mean let’s focus on the function beneath the strategy. I suggest this so we focus on learning from nature rather than just learning about nature.

Biomimicry takes inspiration from nature to create sustainable human designs. In practicing biomimicry, one asks, “How does nature...?” The first step is to identify what you want your design to do. This is different than identifying what you want to design. You need to identify the function you want to perform... the verb, not the noun, in order to consult nature’s genius. Nature doesn’t design air conditioners, but it does manage temperature and remove humidity... those are functions. A function is the action for which a thing or adaptation exists; the purpose. We can talk about parallel functions that exist in both the natural and human-built worlds. For example, adhesion is a function that both gecko feet and human-made products like medical bandages or tape perform. Function is the bridge between biology and design, and identifying challenges in terms of function(s) allows us to ask nature for help!

Beavers (Castor Canadensis) are ecosystem engineers and a keystone species, meaning they have a disproportionately large effect on the environment relative to their abundance. When feeding and building dams, they reengineer landscapes, creating stable, predictable conditions for themselves, and a host of other creatures who take advantage of their engineering efforts.

The key to their success is that beavers are well-adapted to the environments in which they live. They have a number of interesting adaptations, including powerful jaws that can cut a half-inch sapling in one bite, webbed rear feet like swimming fins, and transparent eyelids that function much like goggles. But one feature that is a great example of multi-functional design is a beaver’s tail.

The broad, flat, scaly tail, covered in leathery scales, serves many functions. The tail serves as a rudder to steady and steer while diving and swimming, a third leg while standing upright, a heat exchanger, a lever when dragging branches, and a warning signal when slapped on the water. Plus they store fat for the winter!

What can we learn from beavers?
About designing aquatic products? Or building methods? Or restoring damaged landscapes? Or transforming organizational landscapes into productive, thriving, resilient ecosystems? Or cultivating our own role as a keystone species in the environments where we operate?

Photo: Allan Colton; 

1 Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, The Meaning of Ziraat.