How Biomimicry Is Inspiring Human Innovation
The first thing you notice about the entomology collections department, Lepidoptera division, at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History is a faint, elusively familiar odor. Mothballs. I briefly contemplated the cosmic irony of mothballs in a room full of moths (and butterflies, a lineage of moths evolved to fly during the day) before turning to Bob Robbins, a research entomologist. “There are many insects that will eat dried insects,” he said, “so traditionally you kept those pests out using naphthalene, or mothballs.”
The mothballs have been phased out (in favor of freezing new specimens to kill any pests), but that lingering smell, as well as the endless drawers of insects pinned under glass and carefully arrayed in row after row of steel cabinets for taxonomic posterity, only heightens the sense of age in the hushed chamber. Time seems to stand as still as the millions of specimens.
But pore through those drawers, through the precisely spaced squadrons of swallowtails and sunset moths, and a different idea begins to form: This is not a dormant repository, but a laboratory that investigates an extraordinarily successful enterprise. Over some 150 million years, these “products” have been ruthlessly prototyped, market-tested, upgraded, refined and otherwise made new and improved as the world around them changed. Each of these fragile specimens is a package of innovation waiting to be understood and adapted.