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Hitchcock Center for the Environment opens hike to learn about biomimicry to public

On the morning of Oct. 17, this reporter went on an adventure of discovery through the woods of Mt. Toby with naturalist Ted Watt and Biomimicry Guild biologist Tim McGee. This hike was planned by the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and was open to the public.

The hike was named the “Biomimicry Walk.” According to the Biomimicry Guild, biomimicry is, “a new disciple that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems.”

The sky was clear Saturday morning and it was slightly chilly, but overall the weather accommodated the hike well. The forest floor was covered with autumn’s red, brown and yellow leaves.

As the hike began, McGee spoke of an insect with a unique ability.

“Most animal’s cells freeze at negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit,” said McGee. “This insect excretes a protein that prevents the ice crystals from forming allowing the insect to survive at that low a temperature.”

 “Well, how could this help mankind?” asked McGee leading the group to think like a specialist in biomimcry. “Well antifreeze for a car.”

Watt said in response to McGee’s question, “Wow, that is amazing to think about.”

As a member of the Biomimicry Guild, McGee is trained is what is called “systems thinking,” which allows him the mental acrobatics to see ways systems in nature translate into something man can “mimic.”

“A lot of biomimicry is just about observation,” said McGee.

According to a worksheet McGee brought from the Biomimicry Guild, one must observe their surroundings with a “child-like” mind. McGee and his co-workers believe that things that one might normally overlook give great insight.

One example McGee gave the group was during his demonstration of the findings that one can discover simply by picking up a pinecone.

“The way the scales on the pinecone are placed in a spiral,” said McGee, “creates a vortex when the wind blows. This vortex brings the charged pollen into the cone pollinating the egg cells inside of the cone.”

McGee taught the group that the spiral design of the pine cone could be used to distribute moisture in a building. Additionally, McGee said that it could also be used for another yet to be discovered application.

Watt picked out various species of plants during the hike. Towards the end of the hike, Watt pointed out a blighted chestnut tree.

 “This whole area used to be filled with chestnut trees that would provide bushels of edible nuts,” said Watt. “However, there is a fungus that grows inside of the tree that does not allow it to grow. If it wasn’t for the fungus, the chestnut tree would be abundant in this area.”

Though low in attendance, all of the hikers agreed they had gained knowledge from McGee. Even Watt, an experienced naturalist, agreed that McGee’s talks about biomimicry gave new insights.

“I’ve known Ted for years,” said Marianne Jakus, an attendee of the hike. “And it’s fun to see him enjoying learning new things from Tim. He wouldn’t be happy if he wasn’t always learning something new.”

McGee worked with the Biomimicry Guild in India and became extensively aware of the ecosystem there. 

“The forest canopy in India acts as the engine for the Monsoons,” said McGee. He described how cutting down the forests for development would “cause the monsoon not to go far enough inland.” This would spell drought for the parts of India not hit by the monsoon. The goal of the Biomimicry Guild would be to help the architects in India design buildings that perform the same function of the forest canopy.

“We would want to build a building that evaporates enough water so the monsoon will continue inland,” said McGee.

The Biomimicry Guild wants to help architects design buildings that are “creating condition conducive to life.” 

The Guild also looks at ways to gather resources more effectively by looking at nature. “Leaves hold a great deal of nutrients,” said McGee. “All those nutrients would be lost if not for the spring ephemerals.” Spring ephemerals are plants that grow low to the ground and hold the leaves in place after the snow from winter melts.

According to McGee, all these nutrients would be lost if not for these seemingly insignificant plants and the other species in the ecosystem would suffer. “This type of information would be valuable for landscaping company,” said McGee. “To help the growth of the rest of the company, company officials may consider adding types of spring ephemerals.”

These organisms have had millions of years to develop these adaptations. McGee stated that comparatively, humans have not been around long at all.

 “All our technology has basically sprung up in the last 150 years,” said McGee. “With these new technologies, such as the electron microscope, we can gain even greater insight [on how these organisms function].” 

During the hike, McGee had the hikers look at the rose, and he revealed the complexity of how a rose attracts pollinators.

McGee took this reporter’s notebook and quickly sketched out the cell in a rose petal. “Looking straight on the cell is a hexagon,” said McGee. “[While] looking at the cell from the side, the cell is dome-shaped. This concentrates the light to one point heating the flower, which attracts pollinators.”

According to Science.jrank.org, a Web site dedicated to generating an encyclopedia or science-related materials, the chief pollinator of roses are bees. McGee explained that these insects and others that commonly pollinate roses are attracted to heat, and therefore seek comfort within the flower’s heat.

Other flowers have small bumps on the surface. According to McGee, the purpose of this is to keep beads of water from falling off the flower.

McGee is unsure why this happens, but he and Watt speculated that the function of this was to act as a “drinking fountain for pollinators.”

Discovering and speculating about “the unknown” is what makes this science fun for scientists studying biomimicry.

While walking uphill, Watt picked up a blue piece of bark. “Maybe this bark glows in the dark,” said Watt. The group gathered around to take a closer look. Watt began to talk about different species that glow in the dark such as the “Jack-O-Lantern fungus” and algaes that glow in the dark around the surface of the ocean.

McGee said that these algaes glow in the dark to confuse predators as the predators touch the algaes. McGee said that in order to apply it for human use, people could think of this function as “a company that ships boxes and wants to be able to tell whether or not someone has handled a box. They could find out how the algae’s glow in the dark capabilities work and try to apply this function to the boxes so that when touched, the boxes glow in the dark.”

On hearing this Watt commented how it is hard for him translate his extensive knowledge of organisms to how it could help industry. In response to this, McGee said, “It takes an understanding of industrial needs.”

The Hitchcock Center will be holding more events similar to this hike in the future. These events are open to the public for a fee. Watt hopes that students interested in nature participate in these events so they can learn how  to transfer theories derived from biology and other science classes into real world situations. 

Bobby Hitt can be reached at rhitt@student.umass.edu.

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