Feb 28

We can all appreciate a good idea when we hear one. But what about those great ideas that really make a difference, that help make the world a better place? TED, a nonprofit founded in 1984, is devoted to spreading the word about great ideas. Every year TED grants a $100,000 prize to an individual with “One Wish to Save The World” and ARKive patrons E.O. Wilson and Dr. Sylvia Earle have both been recipients in the past.

The 2012 TED prize will be awarded at the end of this month, and what better time to share some of the greatest ideas that were inspired by nature and are helping to change the world, even if just a little bit.

Temp-savvy termites

Magnetic termite photo

Magnetic termite mounds

When those warmer months come around, it’s easy for us to turn on a fan or the air conditioner and escape the heat. However, some people have taken a cue from the termite and its method for staying cool in the hot African sun that doesn’t use energy at all. By opening and closing different vents in the mound, termites keep internal temperatures at a tolerable and constant 87°F. Designers of a residential building in Zimbabwe caught on to the termite’s bright idea and incorporated this vent system into their construction plan, saving 90% of the traditional energy costs of a building similar in size.

Tremendous trunk

African elephant photo

Africa elephant showing trunk

When you think of an elephant, one of the first things that comes to mind is undoubtedly its trunk. A handy adaptation, the African elephant uses its trunk and two prehensile finger-like lips to feed from the ground and trees, breaking off branches and picking leaves and fruit. Recognizing how helpful an elephant trunk can be, many robotic arms used in assembly line production and even medical equipment have been designed using the trunk for inspiration.

Breakneck beak

Kingfisher photo

Kingfisher showcasing its aerodynamic design

Looking at this picture of the kingfisher, it’s not hard to see how scientists used its sleek, aerodynamic design when conceptualising Japan’s ultrafast bullet train. Kingfishers have been reported to dive into water with barely a splash in search of fish. Borrowing from the bird’s design, the bullet train uses 20% less fuel than the traditional train.

Sleek shark

Great white shark photo

Great white shark breaching

You might notice swimmers wearing interesting ensembles at the upcoming Olympics in London this year. Athletes have increasingly been sporting swimsuits inspired by sharks and their skin. The specially designed suits reduce drag by up to 4% and feature a texture similar to small “teeth” that direct the flow of water around the swimmer.

We’ve explored some fascinating ideas, inspired by species, that have helped change the world. Do you know of any other great ideas inspired by nature? Why not share them in the comments below!

Liana Vitali, ARKive Science, Education and Outreach Officer, Wildscreen USA