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The Biomimicry Manual: What Can the Tree Shrew Teach Us About Addiction?
In our newest series, The Biomimicry Manual, we are thinking about design in a different way and asking ourselves “How would nature do it?“. Nature’s designs are tried and true, and there are a number of creatures on this planet that have a few tricks we can study and borrow from to make life on earth better. Take, for instance, this tiny party animal seen above. The pen-tailed tree-shrew (Ptilocercus lowii) is a beautiful, bright-eyed social climber, with a lovely naked tail ending in a fabulous feathery fringe. It spends its days sleeping, but by night, this little creature indulges its taste for naturally fermented palm wine. A lot of it. In fact, booze is pretty much what they live on. So what can we learn from them?
Image © LetDown102
Though many fruit-eaters (like bats, birds, and humans) enjoy a good tipple, the pen-tailed tree-shrew is hands-down nature’s biggest lush. They spend several hours each night sipping the equivalent of up to 12 glasses of wine. They are the only known wild mammal with such a regular drinking habit. Their drink of choice is served in the tops of the Southeast Asian bertram palm. A rich yeast community flourishes in the flowers of this palm, producing a heady brew of fermented nectar. With up to 3.8 percent alcohol content, the palm wine is one of the most alcohol-rich foods found in the wild. It seems that the wine is made especially for the tree-shrew, which finds itself unable to resist the opportunity to pollinate the palm. The flowers ferment all year round, and the treetop bar never closes. Madame Tree-Shrew’s rich source of calories allows her to nurse her young somewhat infrequently, and once the babies are full and drowsy, mom leaves them alone in the nest for up to two days while she goes on her next bender.
If a person drank the way this party-girl does, she would suffer severe liver, heart, kidney, and brain damage—that is, IF she survived the alcohol poisoning (and we won’t even mention the wisdom of breastfeeding with this diet). But despite a blood-alcohol concentration several times the legal limit, the tree-shrew never gets drunk.
It seems they metabolize the alcohol differently than we do, neutralizing its effect. Which is probably a good thing. Wandering alone drunkenly through the nighttime trees would be a poor choice for such a delectable morsel.
What can human designers learn from this extreme creature? Can the pen-tailed tree-shrew teach us something useful? Perhaps we can we study the metabolic pathway and use it to find a way to cure alcohol addiction or stop alcohol poisoning and other harmful side-effects. And using alcohol to lure people to gather somewhere is nothing new, but there may be other lessons about advertising to be learned here. What do you think? Give it a try. Post your ideas. Let’s brainstorm together and uncover nature’s genius for smart design.
An evolutionary biologist, writer, sustainability expert, and passionate biomimicry professional in the Biomimicry 3.8 BPro certification program, Dr. Tamsin Woolley-Barker blogs at BioInspired Ink and serves as Content Developer for the California Association of Museums‘ Green Museums Initiative. She is working on a book about organizational transformation inspired by nature.
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