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OK. I admit it. I’m a grown man in my mid 40’s and I’m scared of spiders! I’m also a scientist – so I’m meant to be rational – but even though I know that they can’t hurt me (well, not in this country anyway) – I’m still terrified of them. The only benefit that they possibly have in my life is that when I find one in my shower in the morning then I might actually decide to go to the gym rather than having to deal with it…

So, it was with great nervousness that I clicked on the link on the BBC news website about some work that’s been done in Manchester. As an arachnophobe, this is the stuff of my nightmares! But as an engineer it’s cool enough for me to set my fears aside (well, enough to read the article anyway).

Spiders scare me when they stay put in their webs, finding out that some spiders can jump long distances… The flesh on my back is crawling just writing the words!

OK, I’m overreacting. A 1cm spider that can jump 6cm shouldn’t have me worried that spiders will suddenly be jumping for my jugular – but hey – the whole point of phobias is that they’re irrational!

Back to the engineering! This is really quite impressive. Being able to store and release energy in that way is not at all trivial. And it isn’t just the magnitude of the jumps. They showed that the spiders get their trajectory right – they know what angle to launch themselves at in order to land at the desired location in this case a landing platform – in the wild, their prey.

Natural engineering

This is just one example of the massive amount that engineers can learn from nature. Biomimetics, or biomimicry, is a subject which is really gathering momentum – and it’s not just for propulsion engineers. Animals, insects and plants demonstrate incredible spider capabilities: the way that insects fold their wings; the way that bombardier beetles squirt their noxious defence liquor; the way that pond skaters make use of surface tension to walk on water; Ascobolus Immersus fungi that fire off their spores at 180,000g!

Engineering has a massive amount to learn from the natural world – and why wouldn’t we? Most engineers spend between three years and a decade at university. The natural world has been developing over several million years!

From my point of view as a scientist rather than an engineer (subtle difference – but the subject of many an argument down the pub) the Manchester work was also really impressive because of the way that they used CT scanning to work out whether the spiders just used their muscles or pumped liquid into their legs to get hydraulic support. Turns out it’s just their muscles, even though they have the ability to do hydraulic stuff too! (Oh!  Maybe they can jump for my jugular after all…).

Look and learn

The lesson to learn from all this has to be that next time we have an engineering problem to solve – rather than heading straight for the scientific literature – maybe I’ll take a look at all the animal and plant world record holders first. Also, mother nature tended not to file patents so copying her doesn’t upset the lawyers…

Steve Thomas
Senior Consultant

Steve is a senior consultant in the Applied Science Group and works on integrating chemistry and materials science into product development and systems engineering.