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Written by: Jane Li
Written on: March 21st, 2017
Tags: biomedical engineering, health & medicine, lifestyle, material science, mechanical engineering, water, physics
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About the Author
Jane is an animal-loving sophomore studying Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation in the Iovine and Young Academy at USC.
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Volume XVIII Issue I > From Shark Skin to Speed
Sharks inspire a feeling of awe in many people, partly due to their natural speed and representation of power. Through modern biomimicry, scientists have been able to imitate shark skin and design speed-enhancing technologies to benefit transportation, medicine, and apparel design.
biomimicry

Introduction

When visiting a local aquarium, there is no lack of spectacles that may capture one’s attention – glimmering schools of sardines swimming as a unit, colorful sea dragons hiding among aquatic plants, and most delectably, the distinct aroma of the fish and chips served in the food court. One sight, however, stands out from all other marine organisms: the shark. Humanity has long perceived sharks as an animal of power: grand yet sleek, inspiring awe among zoologists and the casual beachgoer alike. With new stories reporting shark attacks every year, even a student in elementary school knows that the shark is an animal that deserves respect.
One characteristic that adds to the shark’s magnificent reputation is its speed; although sharks are relatively large mammals, they are able to swim up to 43 miles per hour in short bursts [11]. This speed comes from 3 billion years of evolution and natural selection, allowing them to capture prey efficiently and achieve an image of dominance in the underwater ecosystem [3][4]. Though the human race places high value on speed for different reasons – convenience, efficiency, and productivity – scientists are looking to this underwater powerhouse for inspiration behind new designs and technology.

What is Biomimicry?

Of course, sharks are not the only organisms that scientists study and strive to imitate. Because nature is essentially a 3-billion-year-old research and development lab. Scientists, engineers, and designers have relied upon natural organisms and processes for hundreds of years in order to spark innovation [1]. Biomimicry is this process of studying and replicating systems in the natural world, and it ranges from watching birds to achieve flight to imitating gecko feet to create adhesives [2][3]. One of the earliest and most recognizable examples of biomimicry, mentioned in Fig. 1, was George de Mestral’s invention of burs to create Velcro in 1952 [3]. George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, was on a hunting trip in the Alps when he noticed that tiny burs covered the fur of his dog [3]. He studied these burs closely and used them as inspiration to create an equally gripping material called Velcro [3]. While the term “biomimicry” did not yet exist, Velcro would soon become one of its most successfully commercialized examples [3].
Bunakenhans.com, Sites.psu.edu/Bunake​nhans.com, Sites.psu.edu
Figure 1: Major Biomimicry Events. (Modified from [2][3]).