Many of us have heard the famous idea that ‘art imitates life, and life imitates art’. And this is true in many ways. But this is not just true of art – for we see this in science and technology as well! As society becomes more advanced, we often look to nature, with its patterns and perfection, to inspire our next innovations. But where can we see this?
Today, we will look at a bird that we have talked about in the past – the kingfisher. We have talked about its beauty and colors, its similarity to birds like woodpeckers and hoopoes, and the process of identifying them. But today, we are looking at something that has had a fascinating and significant influence on technology – their diving patterns.
White-Throated Kingfisher in flight (Kabini, Karnataka, India), January 2019
This particular story begins in the 1990s in Japan. The Tokaido Shinkansen is one of the world’s most developed bullet train lines, connecting Japanese cities Osaka and Fukuoka over a 322-mile railway line. After attending an ornithology conference in 1990, the railway’s lead engineer, Eiji Nakatsu realized that he could actually use behavior in birds to improve the speed and efficiency of his trains. He also realized that he could streamline their patterns such that issues like sonic booms would not be as severe.
In particular, Nakatsu was drawn towards the Kingfisher. What he noticed was that kingfishers’ behavior of diving into the water when fishing, created little to no splash. This was in contrast to birds like pelicans and eagles, whose aggressive diving technique would instantly create a lot of motion. However, Kingfishers’ unique anatomy – in particular, their long, thin beaks – allow them to penetrate the water like bullets, with little to no disturbance!
Observe this Pied Kingfisher. The beak is shaped almost like a dagger – it starts normally, but as you go down further, it becomes thinner and thinner. Perhaps this is even more obvious in the bird below, a Blue-Eared Kingfisher. All of these have the same sharp beak, and the same hunting advantage.
Blue-Eared Kingfisher (Kabini, Karnataka, India), January 2019
You may even remember how we discussed the similarities between Woodpeckers and Kingfishers in an earlier post. This is just another of those similarities! This Northern Flicker, for example, has a similar beak pattern – but in this case, it is more useful for drilling holes in trees.
So how could this be used to improve bullet trains? Well, what Nakatsu and his team discovered was that they could redesign the fronts of their Shinkansen trains, to give them a “beak-like” nose. This would increase their speed and prevent them from creating too many ‘splashes’ through the air, thereby reducing the levels of sound interference. Eventually, they were able to create a model that looked like this:
Can you see the similarity? The same pattern of starting with a stocky back, then bridging downwards into a sharp, beaklike nose which can penetrate either air or water with very little interference. This model proved successful, and Nakatsu’s Shinkansens were able to greatly improve their functionality.
How fascinating it is when these disciplines interlock! Ornithology and engineering, physics and biology – and the results they create are truly incredible. I can’t wait to see our next nature-inspired invention. I’d love to hear about other ways that birds have helped to inspire our technology – go ahead and comment them below!