In biology, the most amazing designs are often found in small things. Take for example froghoppers. These “insects can perform explosive jumps with some of the highest accelerations known among animals”, say three scientists in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). These little creatures can withstand 400gs as they accelerate at 4000 meters/second2.

The researchers wanted to understand how froghoppers take off from smooth plant surfaces. How do they get a grip on the slippery surface? After analysis they discovered a previously unreported mechanism, which led to some ideas of copying this in engineering applications.

The researchers wrote: “Animals are known to grip by interlocking claws with rough surfaces or engaging adhesive pads on smooth substrates. Here we report that insects can use a third, fundamentally different attachment mechanism on plant surfaces. When accelerating for jumps, froghoppers produce traction by piercing plant surfaces with sharp metal-enriched spines on their hind legs, deforming the cuticle plastically and leaving behind micro-scopic holes, like a biological nano-indenter. This mechanism depends on the substrate’s hardness and requires special adaptations of the cuticle at the spine tips.
Piercing may represent a widespread attachment strategy among plant-living insects, promising inspiration for novel robotic grippers and climbers.”

Froghopper spines, enriched with zinc in the cuticle to make them strong, are very effective at piercing without deforming the leaf. Yet they are also finely tuned not to pierce too deep, which would inhibit rapid removal from the surface during take-off. This design has led to new thinking about asset handling.

PNAS continues: “Generally, gripping smooth and plastic materials is an engineering challenge with many potential applications. Needle grippers have been used for handling soft foodstuff such as meat and cakes, but could also be adapted for handling of plastic and cardboard packaging. Studying the detailed biomechanics of penetration-based grip in natural systems and the relevant adaptations in plants and insects may provide information for the design of new biomimetic grippers.”

This adaptation of nature’s design features into human systems is termed bio-mimicry and it is a wonderful testimony to the original Designer, who created these engineering techniques.

Another paper in PNAS about the “Morphogenesis of termite mounds” finds inspiration for architectural design. Termites exhibit impressive social organisation, acting almost like a distributed organism. There’s an uncanny feedback between animal and environment.

The scientists write: “Termite mounds are the result of the collective behaviour of termites working to modify their physical environment, which in turn affects their behaviour. During mound construction, environmental factors such as heat flow and gas exchange affect the building behaviour of termites, and the resulting change in mound geometry in turn modifies the response of the internal mound environment to external thermal oscillations. Our study highlights the principles of self-organized animal architecture driven by the coupling of environmental physics to organismal behaviour and might serve as a natural inspiration for the design of sustainable human architectures.”

So these small creatures are able to excel in regulating “mound temperature, humidity, and gas concentrations” using only natural resources, without electric thermostats or sensors. The comment is repeated that they “might serve as a natural inspiration for the design of sustainable human architectures.” Here again is design from creation inspiring design for human life.

Gears are ubiquitous in the man-made world, found in items ranging from wristwatches to car engines, but God invented them first! A species of plant-hopping insect, Issus coleoptratus, is the first living creature known to possess functional gears, a new study finds. The two interlocking gears on the insect’s hind legs help synchronize the legs when the animal jumps. Each leg sports a curved strip of 10 to 12 gear teeth that attach to the trochantera on the insect’s legs.

Live Science reports: “Insects’ hind legs can be arranged in two ways. The legs of grasshoppers and fleas move in separate planes at the sides of their body, whereas those of champion jumping insects, such as planthoppers, move beneath their body along the same plane. Thus, planthoppers’ legs need to be tightly coupled.

“If there were to be a slight timing difference between the legs, then the body would start to spin”, Burrows said.

“The gears synchronize the movement of the hind legs to within about 30 microseconds of each other—much faster than the nervous system could achieve, according to the study findings.”

Clearly the gears had to work together on each leg before there would be any movement in this little bug.

And then there are mosquitos. Materials researchers and engineers at Kansai University in Japan saw amazing potential in the structure of the mosquito’s mouth. They used sophisticated engineering techniques that can carve out structures on the nanometre scale. The result of this blend of materials science and biology was a needle that penetrates like a mosquito—using pressure to stabilise and painlessly glide into skin. Tests proved it worked flawlessly.

The efficient drill of the wood-boring wasp’s ovipositor (an egg-laying spike) works on the same basis. Two-toothed blades ratchet a central drill deeper and deeper into the wood. Because of the efficiency of this design, no motor is needed—just the delicate force the wasp exerts. This goal of guided, smooth penetration is exactly what neurosurgeons need in their tools.

These are just a few among hundreds of examples of biological designs that are inspiring research at labs and universities. The unspoken assumption is that there is complex, efficient design built into these creatures. If only mankind would acknowledge the existence of the Great Designer.