Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Wednesday, September 14, 2011
It is a well known biomimicry meme that ounce for ounce, spider silk is stronger than steel or Kevlar. But what is it about the structure of a spider silk that makes it so strong? Is it the nano scale makeup of the silk? Is it the pattern? Do the patterns indicate function? Over the summer, I've collected a couple images of spider webs as I've seen them and tried to learn a little more about what makes them so special and how we can learn from them.
|Spiral orb web in the forest|
Tuesday, September 13, 2011
We sometimes think of trees as solitary objects - lone specimens standing in a field of green. Or we think of them in clusters of a forest, one indistinguishable from another. But trees, like everything else, are interconnected and linked with all life around them. I thought about this when looking at the tree in my backyard yesterday. What life does this tree support along its vertical axis? And what relationships do these life forms have with each other? What can we learn from these connections?
|The pride of my backyard - our Norway Maple|
Monday, September 12, 2011
|Here is the problem with a novice naturalist walking through a restored prairie and seeing pretty flowers - I assume they all should be there! It turns out that the pretty pinkish purple flowers I saw on a walk I did way back in July (how summer flew by!) were actually Plumeless Thistle, an invasive weed, and it was everywhere, at least near the walking path I was on.|
|While walking through the prairie on bright July day, I wanted to observe the prairie species mix to see if I would find any patterns. The main pattern I found was centered around water availability. The highlands where there was no standing water found home for yellow coneflower, wild carrot, thistle, some milkweed, and turf grass gone to seed. The lower areas where the creek ran through hosted cattails, grass, a spiky purple plant that looks like salvia, and some strange broadleaf species that seemed like it would be more at home on the forest floor. Near the paths in higher elevations, I was taken by a pretty purple flower that I found and thought I could learn a little more about it.|
Thursday, August 11, 2011
|Carpenter Ant Colony in a Bounce House|
I have no idea why a colony of carpenter ants would chose to build a satellite community in a rolled up bit of plastic fabric. It must have been dark and slightly damp and that must have been enough. It was a poor choice on her behalf. After the destruction of their nest, the ants were obviously very erratic and grabbed their rice shaped pupae, or egg sacks, and scattered in the grass. I watched them for a while, trying to determine if they had any idea where they were going, but they just seemed to be running for cover. Within minutes, each and every egg sack had been picked up and was being carried by an ant in its pincers and within a few minutes, very few pupae were visible. Ants in general are very good at concealing themselves to avoid predation, so it is difficult to follow ants in grass and see where they go.
They have a colony structure similar to other ants where a mated queen searches for a new home (my rolled up bouncer) and lays eggs that are both workers and queens. Unmated queens can produce only males. Carpenter ants do not actually eat wood. They can't eat solid food because their esophagus is too long and narrow. So, they gather aphid honeydew and tree sap and they love human food, which is probably what drew them to the bounce house. They still damage wood, however, by hollowing it out to create their nests, hence their name. They also have a symbiotic bacteria that biosynthesizes amino acids and other nutrients and plays some role in its nutrition.
I captured one ant and one egg sack during the scattering and used it to identify the ants as carpenter ants by its bent antennae and the shape of the pupae. The confined ant moves in an interesting way, using its antennae to feel around and its two front legs to try and dig through the plastic container I had placed it in. The other back four legs are spread out to stabilize its movement. I did see the ant pick up two of its four back side legs and shake them while upside down with only two side legs to hold it in place - impressive acrobatics. The confined ant is very protective of the pupae and when it isn't carrying it around, it is resting on top of it protectively. My research indicated that worker ants are required for the new adults to emerge from the pupae - they can't do it on their own. And for that reason the mother in me can't let the ant die in captivity. As much as I'd like to keep an example of this ant, I'm going to have to let it go. I don't want an ant farm in my house and I can't be responsible for its death. Amazing creatures - as long as they stay out of my house and it's wood.
More photos here.
|Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips.|
It felt relaxing because I was alone, my children were being cared for by our babysitter, and I had the luxury to just sit down and look at a field of green and yellow prairie flowers. That experience alone made the time worthwhile. But the multi-tasker in me wanted to be doing something else at the same time - walking or running so that it would count as my exercise for the day; naming the grasses, birds, and bugs I see and remembering the ones I couldn't name; thinking about what I see and practicing my biomimicry translation skills... I find it almost impossible to turn off the part of my brain that tells me what I am doing now is not as important as what I should or could be doing.
After "quieting my cleverness," I came away from the experience with a feeling of vitality, both of the prairie and in myself. The prairie looks like plain grassland to many people, but by sitting down and just observing I know that this place is alive in ways I never imagined. I saw a black crow perched on top of a grass swaying in the wind. I heard bugs buzz by my ear and saw butterflies, moths, and dragonflies - and a few mosquitoes. I heard the grass rustle against each other and I saw critters scatter. Hundreds of species call that patch of grassland home and by sitting down to observe them, I became a part of that system. I felt renewed and connected to something much larger than myself. And it felt great. I will continue to return to the prairie and other environments and I will practice my skills of sitting and being fully present. I hope that one day I will be able to accomplish the task.
Wednesday, August 10, 2011
|Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips|
Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Today was a beautiful sunny day for a bike ride through the Springbrook Prairie Forest Preserve. It was hot today. Very hot. But the flowers in the prairie were in full bloom, and I was curious about the plants I found there. What are their names? Where do they grow and why? Is there anything we can we learn from them that could influence design? To try and answer these questions, I took a collection (which doubles as an interesting wildflower arrangement) and have attempted to classify a few of the flowers I picked. I did a little research on the natural history of each and then have extrapolated a few questions as to how each plant may inspire design. What questions do you think the plant could help us answer?
Wednesday, July 13, 2011
I went for a walk in the Morton Arboretum today, looking at tree bark. Yes, tree bark. For my biomimicry coursework, I have certain prescribed iSite assignments where I go out and observe nature. One of them included looking at tree bark and the differences between different species. This was on my mind after a conversation I had with Dr. Robert Fahey, a forest ecologist on staff at the Arboretum, about tree bark and its (marginal) insulative values. He spoke about Oak forests and how the rough bark fissures that Oak trees present actually create air pockets that help insulate the tree from fire and extreme cold. It's cork-like texture also traps air pockets, adding insulation. He was quick to mention that the cell structure of the live phloem has more to do with a tree surviving cold than the dead bark, but it was an intriguing idea for me and I resolved to contact a plant physiologist soon. Dr. Fahey spoke about the the chemistry of bark and how some species create chemicals in their bark that protect the tree from predators.
Monday, June 27, 2011
|Jacob in the St. Louis Canyon at Starved Rock|
Monday, May 16, 2011
Lichen are plants and fungus that create a mutualistic relationship greater than the sum of their parts. What can we learn from them?
Common Greenshield Lichen. Flavoparmelia Caperata. Photo by Amy Coffman Phillips
Walking through the forest for my first iSite in the Harvard Forest, I came upon this beautiful lichen growing on a red maple tree. Up close, it looks like flattened lettuce or cabbage growing in these romantic formations, an example of a foliose (leaf like) lichen. And lichen is unique because it is not one organism, but a symbiotic relationship between two organisms: fungi and algae. To form a lichen, the fungus either encloses the algae in fungal tissue or penetrates the algal cell wall in order to harness their photosynthetic abilities. The fungi form the structure and then recruit algae to come live with them, and the algae benefits from the protection the fungi provide as well as their ability to capture water and nutrients. The mutualistic relationship between these two organisms (although sometimes commensalistic or even parasitic depending on the species) is greater than the sum of its parts because it allows both organisms to survive and thrive in areas they would not be able to alone. Their relationship creates benefits for the ecosystem as a whole as well because as rain water falls down the bark of a tree, it gathers nutrients from the lichen which feeds nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil, and then by extension, the tree and other plants.
How does the lichen fit into this forest?
Lichen exist in most every ecosystem on the planet from arctic tundra to deserts. While they have adapted to many different climates and conditions, they are also sensitive to environmental disturbances, such as air pollution because they are not deciduous and absorb nutrients from the atmosphere, rain and dust rather than roots. For these reasons, they are bioindicator species for air quality as well as ozone depletion and metal contamination.
Lichen also grow in unique structures, different than those that fungi or algae use alone. They are built in layers. The outer layer is a conglomeration of fungal cells that form a protective cortex. Below this layer is a layer of algae embedded in a densely woven layer of fungal hyphae or the long branching structures of fungi,. Below this layer, the third layer is comprised of densely woven fungal hyphae without the algae, called the medulla. The fourth and bottom layer is called the lower cortex and resembles the top layer and is also composed of densely packed fungal hyphae and rootlike rhizines which attach the lichen composite to the structure on which it grows. Because these roots are for structural stability and not nutrient gathering, lichen have the ability to grow on surfaces that other organisms cannot, such as tree bark and bare rocks.
Different types of lichen reproduce in different ways, typically asexually through spores but vegetative and even sexual reproduction occurs in different species. In the case of this lichen, it is similar to an isidia in that it sends up shoots that break off for mechanical dispersal of genetic information. Lichen are able to desiccate and survive long periods with very little water, entering into a state of suspended animation, ready to rehydrate when water becomes available. This ability allows them to survive long periods of temperature extremes, radiation, and drought in harsh environments.
What are the deep patterns we can take away from the lichen?
- Mutualistic communities of organisms create conditions that are better for themselves as well as the organisms around them, and this symbiosis allows them to withstand conditions together that they would not be able to alone.
- The fungi develop the structure on which the algae grow. Fungi create a densely woven structure of tiny branches that embed and encapsulate the algae in order to harness their photosynthetic abilities. The organism bodily structures of each organism change in order to accommodate their partner, and they cannot survive alone.
- Lichen absorb nutrients from the air and water through their cell walls. When environmental disturbances occur, the algae absorbs these contaminates molecularly and is destroyed, killing the lichen composite. For this reason, lichen are a good bioindicator species and signal environmental disturbances we cannot yet perceive.
How can these strategies naturally influence design innovation?
How can these strategies naturally influence design innovation?
- Empower individuals within an organization to collaborate and share resources in order to create restorative communities.
- Encapsulate harmful substances in a membrane for safe storage at room temperature.
- Grow fibers at the nano scale that will self-assemble into prescribed patterns.
- Design smart materials that passively absorb air- or water-based compounds in order to indicate changes in the system.
Design Application Ideas
What are potential innovations that could result from this natural inspiration?
- Store food at room temperature by encapsulating it in a tasteless, edible membrane that prevents spoilage.
- Preserve vaccines at room temperature by encapsulating active ingredients in a dissolvable membrane.
- Design passive air quality monitors that absorb harmful chemicals or pathogens and change color to indicate their presence.
- Design water quality monitors that test for chemicals or pathogens by absorbing and changing color to indicate their presence.
Biomimicry Professional Certificate Program
Sunday, May 15, 2011
|Vernal Pond at Harvard Forest|
Monday, May 9, 2011
Thursday, May 5, 2011
|Fallen Limbs at the Forest Preserve in Spring|
There were fallen branches everywhere, creating a natural clearing. I don't know if it is normal for so many branches and trees to lie on the the forest floor or if there was some event that caused the branches to fall. One fallen log had a reddish moss growing on it but the majority did not. I wonder what was different about that log - the age, type of bark, moisture content of the wood? I'm guessing the latter, but I'd love to bring an ecologist to find out next time.
|Tree Limb Observational Sketch|
Monday, May 2, 2011
|Magnolia bush in my backyard|
so, tulips. while outside, i studied my tulips looking through the lens of multi-functional design. when thinking about this, i divide the tulip plant into three parts - the bulb root, the leaves, and the flower. i'll focus on the flower because we don't plant tulips for the foliage or the bulb.
Sunday, April 24, 2011
For this iSite, I did a sound map at the Morton Arboretum. By closing my eyes, I made a map of every sound I heard. I was also supposed to see if any of the sounds were related or responsive to one another.
|Sound map by Amy Coffman Phillips|
When I opened my eyes, I saw a pair of ducks swimming in the creek and building their nest, pair bonded for the mating season. Frogs in the distance calling out for mates. Birds likely doing the same thing. Mating season at the Arb.
Saturday, April 23, 2011
|Cantilevered Tree at the Naperville Riverwalk|
Walking along the Riverwalk in my town, I came across a tree that has grown horizontally off the riverbank. It's roots have grown horizontally and are strong enough to cantilever the tree 30' over the riverbank. The tree is truly an amazing feat of natural engineering. It will fall eventually, but so will everything. For now, it has found a way to survive and stand out from the rest of the trees - gaining access to solar resources that others cannot reach. Life will find a way.
|Ding Darling Wildlife Preserve, Sanibel Island, Florida|
Using Sanibel Island as my test model, I've thought about this question.
Sanibel Island is a barrier island off the gulf coast of Florida. The coastal salt marsh ecosystem is formed on the inland side of Sanibel Island and is a water-based ecosystem that has adapted to tidal fluctuations in water levels. Mangrove trees and oysters form land masses and inter-tidal areas that are the nurseries for the sea and the rookeries for many birds and mammals.
What can we learn from this ecosystem and how can it influence business practices?
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
This iSite took place on an ecology tour through Tarpon Bay on the Ding Darling Natural Wildlife Refuge in Sanibel Island, FL. A biologist, Brianna Coffman who turns out to be a distant unknown cousin of my dad (it's a small, interconnected world), led our tour with incredible knowledge and insight about this coastal marsh ecosystem. In addition to the insights learned from the boat, our tour guide also gave us knowledge about how marine life interacts below the sea, interactions I've sketched below.
Monday, March 21, 2011
As a part of my Biomimicry Professional program, we do numerous iSites. iSites are part of our practice of (re)connecting with natural environments and they involve going out and observing nature in order to deepen our understanding of her and through reflection and sketching, reconnect with life and strengthen our vision of a world empowered by nature's genius.
|Jacob chasing birds on Sanibel Island|
While on vacation in Florida, I did an iSite translating what I saw on the natural beaches of Sanibel into an engineering diagram of energy flows. I noticed that all normal energy flows are cyclical - each organism's waste creates an input of energy for another. The energy my son expended chasing shore birds is not accounted for on the diagram below, but I think it should be.
|Energy flows of a coastal ecosystem|
|Laughing gull on Sanibel Island|