Humpback whale image from Shutterstock

Whales are some of the most extreme creatures on Earth. The 115 foot, 150 foot ton Blue Whale, for instance, is the largest animal that ever lived. These magnificent creatures are social mammals, descended from an ancient land dweller that also gave rise to the hippopotamus family. Like hippos and humans, they are warm-blooded and air-breathing, and stay with their young, nursing them for an extended period of time. And like us, they maintain complex social networks. As you might imagine, the whale faces some special challenges doing all this in theocean. As usual, where challenge is extreme, the solutions are efficient. So how can the Blue Whale inspire us today? Find out in.

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Some whales, like the Sperm and the Orca (really a very large dolphin), flash a mouthful of sharp, fish-grabbing teeth. Others, like the Blue and Humpback, maintain their huge bodies by gathering protein-rich plankton from the water. These “filter feeders” gulp seawater, then press it through comblike “baleen” sieves in their cavernous mouths. Baleen is the same stuff your hair and fingernails are made from, and not so long ago we used it like plastic, putting it in corsets and hoop skirts. Whale populations were decimated, of course, but today, they are making a comeback. They still have something to share with us: beautiful and brilliant bio-inspiration.

I am often asked whether actual biomimicry products are making it to market. Absolutely, they are, and the potential for innovation is limited only by our imagination and power of observation. Every creature is exquisitely honed to exist in its environment, and their challenges are often ours as well. Take the Baleen Filter, for instance, a patented liquid-separation technology inspired by real baleen. The filter removes particles smaller than anything you could see with your naked eye, and it mimics the swiping motion of the whale’s tongue to stay clean. The Baleen Filter is finding wide agricultural interest, from fish processing to pig farming. Like most of nature’s “inventions,” this bio-inspired solution is highly efficient and nontoxic, and folks are also interested in using it for wastewater treatment, biogas generation, composting, and emergency cleanup response. Sounds like a great idea.

Whale-inspired fans and wind turbines are also finding their way to market. The humpback whale is a graceful dancer, despite her size. An irregular jagged edge on the front of her flippers is the key, creating tiny whirlpool ball bearings along her skin. These increase lift by 8%, reduce drag by 30%, and increase the angle of attack by 40%. WhalePower is commercializing this by adding similar bumps to the leading edge of its industrial fan blades, reducing noise and increasing efficiency. Since fans consume 20% of our electricity, this represents a significant way to do more using less!

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And here are a couple of other highly marketable ideas from the whale. A thick layer of fatty blubber insulates his body from the cold, but not his tongue. Since he thrusts it out into the water with every plankton-rich mouthful, this is a problem. In response, his tongue has become an enormous radiator, with blood vessels artfully arranged for maximum heat retention. Could we apply this strategy to cool electronics or buildings?

Last, the humpback whale’s 2,000 pound heart sees him through rough seas and deep dives. Microscopic heart ‘wires’ stimulate his heartbeats, even through thick, non-conducting blubber. Can his heart show us the way to better performing, less expensive, battery-free pacemakers? Maybe it’s a $3.7 billion industry just waiting for a solution from the great Blue Whale.

+ The Biomimicry Manual 

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.