Snakes! by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


Recently I started reading Snake Bit, a book about the lives of herpetologists and the stories of how they came to this strange profession. It's a very interesting read, and it made me wonder, beyond anti-venoms, what can we learn from our limbless friends? 

Historically I have had a pretty good relationship with these creatures. There are no poisonous species of snakes in northern Vermont, so as a child there was no danger from picking up and inspecting a baby garter snake, except that they tended to pee on you. Their smooth scales and soft, almost velvety, underbellies were fascinating to me. As a child I wanted - and still do want - to understand them, to know how they work.  

And thanks to PBS I, and you, can!


Aren't they amazing? Each species is so perfectly adapted to its specific environment, perfectly camoflaged, perfectly equipped with venom or other survival strategies. And think of what we can learn from such a successful class of animals?  

From a Biomimicry stand point snakes are a gold mine. They have a multitude of different adaptations that are not only useful to them, but can be useful to us. 


  • Scientist have learned how to produce anti-venom, a medicine derived from many of the most potent species of venomous snakes, that counteracts the poison. This advancement has saved countless lives in snake inhabited areas of the world, but many places have no access to anti-venoms.  
  • What if there was a way to vaccinate people from snake venom? This thought came to me as I was reading Snake Bit. One of the herpetologists mentioned he had been bitten many times by venomous snakes and he appeared to have built up a sort of immunity to certain venoms. What if we could apply this to patients? Much like a tetanus vaccine, a small non-lethal dose of the venom would be given to the patient and over time they would develop an immunity to the toxin. It may not work, but it's and idea. 


  • Snakes have excellent sensory abilities, far surpassing our own. Though most ground snakes eyesight is not superb, their other senses more than make up for it.  
  • Hearing: 
    • Snakes have great hearing; far better than ours. Though their lack of an external ear may seem like a hinderence they have evolved to not need it. Their jaws take the place of our fleshy external ear. Low frequency vibrations from the ground and air travel through the snakes body to the jaw, then to the quadrate bone ( the bone connecting jaw to skull) and then to the inner ear. This sensitivity to ground vibrations may be very useful. If we could utilize the sensitivity of the design of the quadrate bone we might be able to improve seismograph accuracy to better predict earthquakes. 
  • Smell:
    • Snakes have done something spectacular with their sense of smell: combined it with their sense of taste. The snake's nostrils have no olfactory organs, and are only used to breath. Their tongue, however, is used to capture scent particles in the air and converts them to sensory information. They accomplish with with the helps of the Vomeronasal organ. Located on the roof of the snake's mouth, this organ is highly sensitive and accurate, making the snakes sense of smell far better than ours. By studying the design and functions of the Vomernasal organ we could enhance the accuracy of chemical detectors, such as smoke and carbon dioxide sensors, thus better protecting our homes and businesses. 
  • Heat receptors: 
    • This is by far my favorite snake sense. Some snake species have the ability to sense the heat created by living creatures around them. These heat sending organs, or pits are often located on the bottom (informalbial) or top (supralabial) lip of the snake. Pit Vipers have especially sensitive heat pits. The pits on a Pit Viper are concentrated into just two pits on the front of the snake's face. The pits are so prominent on the Pit Viper's face that they are often mistaken for nostrils. The pits are a pore divided by a membrane positioned against the opening to the chamber and the maxillary bone. The membrane is a double sheet of epidermis, separated by connective tissues, blood vessels, and free nerve endings. The heat seeing ability of the pits allows pit vipers to hunt their prey in the complete darkness of a moonless night or in an underground den. These pits are so sensitive that a blinded pit viper can sense a mouse that is a 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding air from 70cm away. By studying the heat pits of snakes, new techniques to detect heat and enhancements in current heat sensing technology could be made. This could be used to enhance surveillance technology, military reconnoissance, and search and rescue. 

I think nature is amazing. Evolution is amazing, and the multitude of things we can learn just through observation astounds me. I feel so lucky to be living on earth at the time that I do, when there is still so much to be discovered and created. 


Sweet Anticipation by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

I, like many people, have a sweet tooth. I can never seem to fight the delicious pull of chocolate, the temptation of ice cream, or the gravity of baked goods. But out of all these sweets, the one I love the most is honey.

Honey is somehow both sweet, and tart, and it adds a little extra joy to whatever I'mm eating. I love to drizzle honey on toast, in tea or coffee, on a bagel with cream cheese, or have it over ice cream.

But, I think my favorite thing about honey is not how it tastes, but where it comes from. I have here a wonderful piece all about bees, their life, and honey! 

NOVA chronicles a year in the life of a bee colony with stunning images that take viewers inside the innermost secrets of the hive. The documentary team spent a year developing special macro lenses and a bee studio to deliver the film's astonishing sequences. Via:

I think bees have a tremendous amount to teach us in the realm of Biomimicry.

Their gentle process of manufacturing could be studied and adopted. In the human world manufacturing making something generally requires a lot of heat, chemicals, and shaping in order to create the product. However, in the bee hive honey is made simply by collecting nectar, and allowing the nectar to coagulate in comb cells to form honey, no high temperatures, no injected chemicals. A process that, besides the collection of the nectar, takes very, very little energy on the part of the bees. 

All of nature follows this low energy, high reward framework of production. Clams and other shelled sea creatures collect calcium and other minerals form the sea water in order to produce their strong shells. Plants utilize simple chemical reactions in order to turn sunlight, minerals, and water into long lasting and complex starches and sugars. If manufacturers found ways to make plastics, rubbers, paper, and other heavily used materials more efficiently think of all the energy that could be saved! 

Think what we could achieve if we could program great swarms of drones to carry out joint tasks, like the bees. We could construct buildings (with large, sturdy drones of course) without the need for people, lowering the rate of construction related accidents. But what if we could make tiny drones the size of bees, what could we do then?

There actually is a group doing just that. The Robobee lab at Harvard University has succeeded in making a robot bee. This tiny machine is smaller than a penny, and pushes the limits of current mechanical engineering with its size. The team thinks these robots could be used to remotely pollinate crops, aid in search and rescue as they can fit through gaps that people or other robots cannot, and enhance weather prediction accuracy and traffic monitoring. 

Whether they're minuscule robots or bees in the flesh, these creatures can do amazing things, I can't wait to see them in the spring!   


How can bacteria change the face of genetics? by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


When I’m cleaning, cooking, or simply lying around I often listen to podcasts. Well, a couple of days ago I came across the most amazing one. It was a Radio Lab podcast--I think I have featured their work before--about a particular bacterial defense mechanism that can, and has, changed the world of genetic engineering, called CRISPR.

What is CRISPR you ask? Well here’s the podcast!

Wasn’t that haunting? The fact that this tiny command, a mere reaction to an external stimulus, in bacteria is so powerful is chilling to me. But in a good way, though some, like Karl, cringe at the thought of the seemingly universal reach of this technology, I am simply in awe of it.

To be honest, I do find the idea of tampering with unborn humans cringe inducing but I also see it as a wonderful advancement against disease and potential medical problems. Just like in the podcast, if I was to be asked if I wanted my child to have genes that protect them against Alzheimer's, I would say yes. I think what’s making some people cringe is that, just like Karl said, human beings seem “sacred” tampering with our genetics seems to cross some invisible line.

 And no doubt, that concern is indeed important, but I think before we cringe and start jumping down certain scientists throats for testing if CRISPR on human embryos, we need to weigh these two values: the imaginary construct that we are sacred, and the fact that this can be a tool for revolutionary medical care. Think of all the genetic and debilitating diseases that could be wiped out using this technique? Cystic Fibrosis, gone. Muscular Dystrophy, gone. Down Syndrome, gone. Anemia, gone.  Think about that… just think of all the debilitating, life-altering disorders that could go away for our grandkids. I find that stunning.

I’ll leave with this. Thought a lot of people focus on the negative aspects of this discovery, there is a positive side too, there always a positive side.

Here’s a list of my top favorite podcasts:

The Crafts Man of all Crafts Men by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


I am an avid watcher of YouTube videos, but I don't hop around for channel to channel, I tend to get hooked on one channel and watch all their videos multiple time until I find an other channel to obsess over. 

Well, for the past few weeks I have been enthralled by Jimmy Diresta’s channel. He is a New York City based crafts man, who can make just about anything with his hands. In his shop he makes table, lamps, dog houses, bells, tools, signs, and anything else you can think of.

As some one who loves knowing how things are made of put together, his videos are addictive. Now I know roughly how to reupholster a chair, or make a stool, with the help of the right tools. Watching his videos has actually inspired me to try my hand at making some furniture in my own shop.

I absolutely love his work, so I thought I share some of my favorites.


This was the first video I ever watched of his, and I was hooked from the start. The fact that he speeds up his videos makes it seem so much more interesting for me, especially be cause I have little patience, and because to get to see the pieces finished. The sounds in his videos remind me of my own shop, and my childhood. As a kid I lived on the construction site of our house while it was being built and I could always hear the sounds of work being done, it’s a strangely comforting sound to me.






Well I hope you liked these as much as I did! 

Pterosaur Part 1 by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

For the past few months I’ve been working on my largest scuplture yet. It started with large perfectly bent I-beam that had been my workshop yard for about five years. The bend in the beam struck me as the perfect curve for the spine of some massive animal, and following this train of thought I welded immense augers to it as legs, initally intending it to become a life sized dragon, or perhaps a monstrous pouncing lion. However, after letting it sit for a while, I got a new inspiration. After watching a nature program about pterosaurs, and writing an exstensive blog post about them, I decided the beast had to be a pterosaur. The speices I chose, and the only one that was to scale with the seven foot long I beam was quetzalcoatlus.

Via: Me

This creature was 18 feet tall with a 35 foot wingspan, the largest flying creature to ever exist on earth. While the creature looks beyond imagination, the scale I’m recreating actually comes from the fossil record, body part by body part, and the sculpture will be anatomically correct. I took artistic license only with the “soft parts” of the creature, which did not survive fossilization.

My sculpture will be this scale, roughly the size of a giraffe: 


These are some other artistic interpretations. 



Thus far I've only completed about half of the body and wings and have nearly finished the head. The wings and webbing will be sheet steel when the sculpture is finished and look more like the interpretations above. The head, neck, and body will be true “art."

Via: Me

Here’s the head nearly finished.

Via: Me 

While researching these fascinating creatures I came upon some variations of the types of head crests from the fossil record. (I took some artistic license on the head of my pterosaur and gave it a big crest.)


I also looked extensively at images of bone structure and the fossil record to ensure that the skeleton of my sculpture was anatomically accurate. 


The Sculpture will be made in 6 separate pieces so it can easily be assembled and disassembled. We will be using our boom truck to do this. Here is the head side by side with the beginning of the body:

Via: Me 

You may be asking yourself what I'm going to end up doing with this massive sculpture. Well, to be honest I don't currently know. There are a few places in town that may accept the piece, but ideally I hope a museum will pick it up. However, if I can't find a home for it elsewhere it will take up residence in our already sculpture strewn yard. I hope this was interesting! As the piece progresses I'll be back with more updates. 


Our Lost Cousins by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber



Recently, I read a small magazine article that made me furious, which is not easy to do. Human arrogance is one of my biggest pet peeves, and this article was full of it. 

It started out promising, talking about Neanderthal jewelry, and I was excited to know more, but shortly after explaining the complex way a necklace could have been constructed and what its symbolism may have been, the article took a turn for the worst… Stating that Neanderthals couldn’t have made this necklace, because they could never have had the cognitive ability to give an object symbolism. 

Well this made me mad for two reasons. One: how in the world can one accurately infer intelligence from bones?! Two: aren't we just assuming they were unintelligent due to longstanding and inaccurate biases created a hundred years ago!? 

I just had to put up some sort of defense for our ancient cousins. Who, in my opinion, should be treated with respect rather than the contempt most people show them. But this contempt is mostly a product of plain ignorance. So in light of this lack of knowledge about Neanderthals I’ve collected a few fabulous documentaries all about Neanderthal intelligence, and anatomy. I learned a lot from these videos and I think you will too.  



Wow…  Those were absolutely riveting, and I absolutely LOVE some of the points made. I especially loved the voice reconstruction. I thinks its funny how high pitched their voices might have been. It's completely counter intuitive to what we would expect. Honestly, I didn’t know there was a bone surrounding the voice box, but I think it’s a miracle of fossilization that this one specimen survived, or else Neanderthals would have remained voiceless forever. 


I also think its fascinating how humans would have interbred with Neanderthals. It makes sense in a way. They would have looked like us, and were close enough in relation to interbreed in the first place, and if clever human mothers wanted to give their offspring the best chance at surviving in the frigid, harsh environments of Ice Age Europe, it would have been an advantage to have some hardy Neanderthal genes. 



Archeologists and Anthropologists theorize that there were actually three waves of hominid migration out of Africa. The first was a species called the Denisovans, they migrated to the east and Himalayan regions and migrated as far south east as the Philippines. From the little fossil evidence we have it is clear that the Devisovans were extremely well suited to living at high altitudes with little oxygen, and genetic evidence shows that they interbred rather extensively with humans through out Southeast Asia. The Second wave of hominid migration was the Neanderthals, who traveled west into Europe and evolved to live in the frigid and forested climates of that time. And the third was Homo Sapiens, who were able to migrate to all regions of the planet. 


I think my favorite point that’s made in the videos above is that the old “humans were just smarter” notion is disproved. We weren’t smarter, if anything, the Neanderthals were far ahead of us in terms of multi-functioning tools and the manufacturing of useful materials. They must have had a complex language in order to hunt so effectively in thickly forested and dangerous areas, and pass along complex skills such as tool making.

The only reason Neanderthals went physically extinct was because their environment was changing. The Neanderthals were specially suited to their cold, forested, and harsh environments. Their torsos held heat better and they were more robust to hunt larger game. The only difference between them and us was their hip joints, that’s all. As their forests dwindled, their bodies were not capable of traversing the longer and longer differences needed to catch food. They only went extinct because of the shifting climate, not because we were better in any way. 

I love learning about human history and the history of our evolutionary relatives. It’s simultaneously fulfilling and humbling to me to be a part of such a varied and ancient family tree. 


A Summer Whirlwind by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

Liesl (left), me (middle), Jens (second from the right), and Dad setting off for Ireland! (2005)

I had quite the exciting summer this year. It makes me feel windswept just thinking about it! 

Last November I applied for the EF Global Citizen Scholarship. Every year the topic for the scholarship is different, and this year it was innovations in education. This was perfect for me because I had created my own personalized path through high school. I used my path as my educational idea, expounding upon my belief that subjects should not be as segregated as they are in contemporary education and that students should be taught through the lens of their passions from a young age.  I had to submit a video explaining who I was and my idea. Take a look. 

It took a couple of weeks before I heard back from EF, but when I did I was in the second round of applicants! I was so excited, because if I got the scholarship it meant I would have a free trip around Europe with the other winners and the opportunity to attend a summit about changing education. The Keynote speaker at the conference was Sir Ken Robinson, an education speaker with the most watched TED talk in history (33 million views). I was speechless when I discovered he would be speaking. His famous TED talk was the reason I started my path through high school, which I had used as my educational idea for the application. For the second round of applications I had to submit two other shorter videos, that I won't include here, they're only about a minute long. 

After I sent in my second application I waited... And low and behold I was accepted! Fifteen other students from all around the US and I would be traveling around Europe! But the fun didn't end there. After I was accepted, EF asked all the Global Citizens to make a video or presentation that described some skill people and learners of the future would need. I used my usual flare and skills to illustrate my point...


(Making this video was actually quite stressfull, because I had to do the whole thing in one shot.)

After a couple weeks, the people organizing the conference announced that they were looking for applicants to introduce speakers at the conference. I set my sights high and applied to introduce Sir Ken. I explained how he had inspired me to blaze my own path through school, and how that program was the reason I was at the conference. When I got the email confirming that I would be introducing Sir Ken I ran around the house yelling for about five minutes straight. If you want to see the video I submitted, here you go. 

The trip began on July 17. All the participants met up in a hotel in Boston for a very awkward first two days. No one knew each other and we were all asking the most basic questions. It didn't take very long to find friends though. By the time we reached London, I had made three hilarious friends and we gladly named ourselves the Fabulous Four. London was wonderful, though the hotel we stayed at was a bit dingy and we had to walk through a creepy park to get to the underground station. We took tours of museums, famous sites, and got to see the royal guard changes.

After a few days in London, we took the train to Paris. There we saw the Louvre, The Catacombs, Notre Dame, and Sacre Coeur. Paris was hilariously fun, but when we saw the Eiffel Tower I had to walk down the seven hundred feet of steps because the elevator line was too long, and I am EXTREMELY afraid of heights, I just about hurled. But Aside from that it was great.

Once our two days in Paris was up we took a train and bus ride to Zurich, Switzerland. We were there for only a night, but I was astounded at how clean it was. Then it was off to Davos! 

That night was the first portion of the conference. All the attending students gathered in the main hall, and were sorted into groups of eight. These groups would last for the rest of the conference and we would have to come up with, and present, an idea for changing education at the end of the summit. That fist night was fun, I got to meet new people and dance a little bit, which is alway a plus. I also was briefed on my Sir Ken intro. I was scheduled to introduce him first thing the next morning, the first full day of the summit. 

I was both excited and nervous. The next morning I put on my best dress and went to the conference hall before all the other students were scheduled to arrive. I was given a microphone, shown the stage, and briefed on the timing of my speech. There would be a couple short talks before mine, just the administrative staff giving the schedule for the day, and then I would speak.

After my briefing I was shown backstage where I actually got to meet Sir Ken! He was hilarious, much funnier in person than in his talks. Just constantly cracking jokes and pulling out one liners. I told him who I was and he thanked me for introducing him. It was such and honor to even shake his hand, let alone having him thank me!

Then I was ushered out and shown my seat in the front row. I watched the other talks and then it was my time to go on stage... I was nervous, to say the least. Having never really spoken in front of a large crow before I was suddenly speaking in front of 1,500 people. I got it though. I talked about my connection with Sir Ken, my path through high school, and my art. 

After my intro I stepped off the stage and watched Sir Ken's talk. He was funny as usual, taking about heavy issues with the tone of a comedian, and to my astonishment he referenced my intro and me about five times! To have him remember what I had said and to think it was worthy of pointing out later was the greatest honor I could imagine! It was a truly magical morning. 

Once the talks were over, I got up to leave with every one else, but found that many of the EF executives and guest speakers around me wanted to congratulate me on my performance and a few even gave me their cards! I was almost late for my first workshop with my group! 

My group was pretty responsive to the various tasks we were given and came up with some very good ideas. Our final idea was an app which, in the theoretical school environment we thought of, would allow the student to learn what they really wanted to, at their own pace and time schedule. In a way, the app we are creating is based on my notions that subjects should not be kept separate. At one point during the Innovation Village, Lauri Järvilehto (creator of Angry Birds) came over to our table, and after we explained our idea he immediately asked for our contact information so he could help us make our prototype a reality. His interest not only astounded me, but also my team. We learned that our ideas were valuable and could make a difference. 

The whole weekend people came up to me; people I’d never met, and said I did an amazing job, adults even, not just students. The film crew that interviewed me actually thanked me for being there and said I was an inspiration. People even asked me for advice on a few occasions, legitimately wanting to know my opinion. It all just blew me away because I’ve never had that kind of validation. I’m not saying any of this to brag, I’m just genuinely astounded by the impact I had. This summit, and the important and amazing people I got to meet made me realize that I can change things, that I can impact the world and help others, instead of just thinking about it. 

My trip to Europe with EF was truly life changing... I will never forget the people I met and the experiences I had, never. 

hummm, hummm, hummingbirds by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


I have long loved humming birds, not for the reasons most people do though. I’ll admit they are cute, but I find their immense diversity and beautifully elegant adaptations far more appealing. 

Today I’ll just be short because the video I have is so long. So, without further ado, here is the excellent Planet Earth documentary all about hummingbirds! 


Stunning aren’t they? I think they are amazing little creatures. Their size and maneuverability remind me of the little four propellers drone robots that have became popular recently. 

In fact, this similarly makes me wonder whether the humming bird wing design and its unique figure eight flight stroke pattern could be used to create similar drones. Instead of four propellers, this design would only use two wings, which means it would potentially use half the power. If this design works then perhaps it could me scaled up? It could be used for a new design of helicopters or personal flying devices. Either way, hummingbirds are fascinating creatures and a quite cute visitor to any garden. 


What Can We Learn From a Fly? by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber



These creatures are often viewed as an annoyance or pest. In fact, my house often has infestations of black flies in the summer. 

 But, as pesky as they are, flies are also vital to the food chain of spiders, bats, and birds, and nearly every other ecosystem on the planet. So, in light of their importance in the natural world, today I want to ask what can we learn from flies from a biomimicry standpoint? 


Though most people find them disgusting, I have actually always been intrigued by the flies' mouth shape and design (I mean they're still gross but in a cool way). Once the mouth opens a soft tube-like organ emerges. This consists of a fleshy called thelabium, which can be moved and bent. At the end of the labium are a pair of sponge-like organs called the labella. The labella had many grooves, called pseudo trachea, which sops up liquids like a sponge. Salivary secretions from the labella assist in dissolving and collecting food particles so that they may be more easily taken up by the pseudo trachea using capillary action. The liquid food is then drawn up from the pseudo tracheae through the food channel into the esophagus. While slightly gross I think this would be a neat sustainable model for a vacuum cleaner or mop that would use capillary action instead of electricity to capture particles. It would be green, efficient, and if planned and modeled right, nearly guaranteed to work. 


Fly feet have their uses as well. Fly feet consist of two small claws and two "sticky" pads. These pads are very similar to gecko feet in that they are covered in tiny hairs called tenant setae that allow them to cling to surfaces through Van Der Waals interactions. By using this same mechanism gloves and shoes could be developed with millions of tiny hairs to assist rock climbers, or simply workers who need to keep a firm grip on their tools. Shoes could be developed for track runners that instead of using spikes to create friction they could use fly feet, honestly the possibilities are endless. 


The fly eye, like many other insects, has many smaller eyes within it. Each “eye” is its own receptor or ommatidia. Each has a lens, a light detecting cone, a pigment cell and a neural receptor. Each ommatidia contributes a small portion to the fly’s vision, the more ommatidia the higher the resolution of the image. I think this is an amazing way to create an eye, and it makes me wonder what this principle could be used for. Perhaps cameras could utilize this to create higher resolution images, or perhaps this could be a way to make cameras even smaller without loosing performance. 


Ok, so weirdly I couldn’t find any satisfactory videos about flies; I guess the whole Internet thinks they’re gross. However, I did find an amazing video clip from the BBC nature program Life about Venus Fly Traps, which has some very good close up images of the structures I’ve been talking about. 


I feel bad for those poor bugs; their little buzzing was so panicky! But it’s the circle of life. And despite these little guys’ grizzly ends in the video, I still think flies are a good source of inspiration for biomimicry. So instead of thinking of flies as pests the next time you see them, think about how much of a resource they could be! 


Elephants, Elephants, Elephants! by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


I will admit that I have a great bias toward highly intelligent animals. I find their ability to communicate to each other and to solve complex problems marvelous, and I swell with pride when I see articles detailing the intellectual feats of other creatures.

Besides many species of whale, dolphin, or primate, I think I admire the elephant the most. I find their deep connection to family touching and their intelligence fascinating, but what I love most about them is their trunks. 


This unique appendage is extremely dexterous, acting much like the human hand. While human arms have bone inside the trunk is completely muscle, with layers running in rings along the trunks length and layers running perpendicular to the rings. This makes the trunk immensely strong, able to crush human ribs or pick up large branches. At the end of all this muscle are two triangular shaped protrusions, which are as dexterous and controlled as the body of the trunk is powerful. These protrusions act like fingers and can pick up a single strand of hay. 



I always thought that the design of the elephant trunk would be marvelous for prosthetic arms, it may not exactly look like a human arm but is has the same, or arguably more dexterity, and for sure more strength. Instead of battery powered electronics and heavy motors, one could use light green plastics, compressed air and a light flexible frame to make the prosthetic trunk. 

While I think this idea is pretty great if I say so myself, somebody beat me to it. Festo, a robotics and electronics company based in Switzerland works on developing robots that act like or mimic animals. Along with a floating and flying penguin, they have also developed a robotic elephant trunk. Theirs is much bigger than a prosthetic arm would be, but they have designed it to replace the heavy, costly, and dangerous Assembly robots in factories. This marvelous robot has eleven degrees of freedom, which allow it to perform tasks normal assembly robots could never do. They use compressed air to move the trunk and have developed a design for the end of the trunk as well. The gripper has three rubber triangles. When they come into contact with an object - due to their internal folding pattern – they curve around the object, allowing them to hold the object without applying a lot of crushing force. 

Festo's website is truly inspiring to anyone interested in robotics, or even a lay person wanting to see something cool. I actually hope to work with or at Festo someday, and it's products and ideas like this that make me giddy with excitement. Festo actually has a few videos of the trunk in action. - The technical principle of the Bionic Handling Assisant.

Flexible movement and precise gripping: at first glance, the Bionic Handling Assistant appears to be a readily yielding gripping arm whose structure and overall operation are modelled on the elephant's trunk. Over and above its pure utility value, however, the system serves as a development platform that combines a wide diversity of technologies and components. Via:

Wow! I hope you enjoyed those as much as I did. I love robotics that are low energy and highly effective, and this does not only both but also is inspired by nature. It's a win win!


Strange Things from the Deep by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


I absolutely love when science is baffled by the results of an experiment, when scientists are proved wrong or humbled, and when scientist don’t know what the heck they’re looking at. It’s this lack of knowledge that is the root of all scientific inquiry, and it sends happy shivers up my spine.

Though mostly people think its phenomenon’s of nature that confuse scientists, a lot of creatures confuse them too.

Only 3% of the deep oceans have ever been explored, and every time a sub sinks down, completely new and mind boggling creatures are discovered.  The most famous are perhaps goblin sharks, Dumbo octopi, and the Humboldt squid, but there are some that don’t even fit in the normal categories of science. 


Take the Siphonophore for instance. This creature is a gelatinous predator, which uses long stinging tentacles hanging under its body to catch prey. But it’s not exactly right to call it a “predator” singular, because Siphonophores appear to be long chain-like colonies of different individuals or “zooid” with different functions. There are zooids that propel the “colony,” zooids that digest food and send the nutrients to others, and some that scientists have no idea what they do. In short there is an individual living creature that preforms each task that a body part would. 


Each zooid buds off from an original fertilized egg, much like in mitosis except an entire creature buds off. The zooids are connected to each other by a long stem, which acts as gas filled float. The individuals are arranged in a very specific pattern, unique to each species. 

Scientists are baffled by this cohabitation, which is different to anything seen anywhere else. I’ve found a couple videos that give really good explanations of Siphonophores and have much better images than I can find, take a look! 

CreatureCast - Siphonophores and Individuality from Casey Dunn on Vimeo.

Personally, I find these creatures amazing. I’d never heard of these creatures until last week and since then I’ve been Googleing them left and right trying to find out more about them. Apart from their pure curiosity factor they have also given me some biomimicry ideas.

  • How can we make our cities and towns more self sustaining? Could there be a district or area devoted to certain necessary functions or needs of a city?
  • There could be the food district, dedicated to high quality production of all the city’s produce.
  • There could be bio digesters in place that would take organic waste material from the produce district and from homes and produce energy.
  • By integrating all the needs of a city within the city it becomes much like the Siphonophore, a complex colony of individuals working for the survival of the whole. 

Dinosaurs! well sort of... by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

 I know a lot of people will name a T-Rex, or a Triceratops, or even a Plesiosaur as their favorite dinosaur, but I’d have to say the dino-era species that fascinates me the most isn’t even a true dinosaur. It’s a Pterosaur!

These amazing creatures are often miss labeled as dinosaurs due to their reptilian appearance, and though they are indeed reptiles – the only reptiles to truly fly – they are only a relative of the famous mega lizards popularized by movies, books and museums. Pterosaurs occupied the earth for as long as the dinosaurs and many may have even preyed on and been preyed on by dinosaurs, coexisting with them as any other creatures do on the this wonderful rock we call home. 

The thing that really gets me though, this the astounding variety of these creatures, along with, for me at least, the empowering story of their discovery. 

Pterosaurs belong to a unique group of reptiles that split off from the proto-dinosaurs about 230 million years ago. Their long evolutionary history produced and astounding variety of species. Some were as small as seagulls (Jeholopterus – it may have also sucked blood like a vampire bat but that is not confirmed) while other species were as large as a small jet (Hatzegopteryx) with a wing span of nearly 40 ft! They had an astounding variety of body types as well, some have beaks or bill with small, large, wide, or thin crests, and most had varying degrees of teeth. Some, mainly the smaller species, were insect eaters, while others prayed on fish, small dinosaurs and perhaps, smaller pterosaurs. The insect eating pterosaurs may have been the first to evolve and fly. A surplus of flying insects would have been a fantastic way for a flying animal to get ahead. The easy access to food would have given them a unique niche, competition from other species would have been low and thus their reproductive success would have been high, leading to their global diversity. 

We know pterosaurs and dinosaurs are related because of the two holes behind the eyes in their skulls. This means they are diapsid reptiles, which later evolved into the crocodiles, lizards, and birds of today. Its hard to properly place where pterosaurs fit in the evolutionary tree because they are so strange and even though the paleontological community cannot really decide what they are – or at least directly related to – they can agree that they are not “flying dinosaurs.”

The first recorded pterosaur fossil was discovered by Mary Anning in Lyme Regis. She was extraordinary from the very beginning of her life. When she was only 13 she unearthed a skeleton of a giant marine reptile: one of the first ichthyosaurs. And in 1828, while in her late 20s, she discovered Dimorphodon, the first pterosaur discovered outside continental Europe, on the beach cliffs around her home town. At the time, headlines celebrated Mary and her “flying dragon.”

As she grew older she continued to collect fossils, and eventually supported her family with a store that sold fossils to tourists. Her discoveries were so numerous that today there is an entire section of the Natural History Museum in London full of her discoveries. While researching Mary I found this short video detailing her truly astounding work, check it out!

Now, if your willing to, I have also found an amazing program talking about pterosaurs, and a team of scienticts attempting to create an accurate model of the creatures, that can fly! .

Pterosaur, the winged reptile, is one of nature's great success stories. Often referred to as pterodactyls, pterosaurs survived as long as the dinosaurs but they are not dinosaurs. More videos: They spread across the globe, soaring or skimming over oceans, inland seas, lakes and rivers, where they became commanding predators of fish and other creatures. Via:

To be honest this has been one my favorite journeys when writing a post. I’d always been interested in pterosaurs, but I never imagined they were so varied, and advances, and, well, wonderful. I hope you learned something along the way, I certainly did! 

Biomimicry: If You Don’t Need It, You Loose It. by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


I think, like many biologists, I could call myself an admirer of all the many varied products of evolution that roam this planet, especially the weird ones.  

One of these little known and neglected animals is the Texas Blind Salamander or Olm. As its name suggests it is blind, but more then simply not having functional eyes, they have lost their eyes all together. They live deep in flooded underground caves where there is no need for any sort of eye because there is no light to speak of. 

From the BBC Planet Earth, Caves. Original link:

But aside from their blindness, these salamanders have several other peculiar traits. Due to their lack of eyes, they have developed the ability to sense the small charges of electricity given off by animals around them. This ability allows them to detect prey when it comes near them, which may not happen for weeks on end in the stark environment of their dark, watery habitats. These salamanders, as you can see from the picture above, have fanned, branch like external gills that allow them to extract the little oxygen from the cave water around them.

One of the aspects of the Olm that I find really fascinating is that it is a perfect example of how evolution doesn’t keep useless baggage. The first amphibian that wandered down there probably had eyes, however in its subterranean environment, there was no light for the salamander to see, thus over many, many generations they lost their eyes. This kind of evolutionary loss can be seen in the skeletal structures of whales, which show the hint of a pelvis and leg bones. Their ancestral species had back limbs, but due to their watery habitat a strong tail for propulsion was far more important that legs and so an entire set of limbs was lost.

 I find this, like all aspects of evolution, amazing and it makes me wonder why humans have not followed evolutions example of letting go of useless systems and structures. Today’s society has massive waste problems and we as individuals tend to collect a lot of useless junk over our lives that simply adds to world waste. If we, as a society, only used and bought what we needed, really needed, in our lives there would be a lot more durable products, much more biodegradable materials, and of course much, much less waste. 

Screen Shot from video above. 

The amazing and complex gills of these creatures are what really interest me. The moment I saw them I thought they could have some very interesting Biomimicry applications.

  • Their structure remained me of branches and they could be used as template for filter designs to filter gasses or pollutants out of water systems.
  • Their shape could inspire air filtration systems even, or perhaps unique wind turbines.

Those I ideas are a little far fetched, but to be honest most of the ideas nature gives me are. The only way I can find out if they’re practice is to research how they could be developed and executed. 


Stop! In the Name of Science by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this before, but I am an avid fan of the podcast/radio show Radiolab. It is an amazing series in which the hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich explore and illuminate the depths of science, philosophy and the human experience. They have episodes on the anatomy of colors, miracle preforming automatons, the origin of numbers, synchronizing lightening bugs, and my favorite – speed.


The speed episode was really great because they talked about everything from the stock market, to nerve cells, to the speed of light. Which brings me to what I wanted to talk about today, light. Well more specifically how Harvard professor Lene Vestergaard Hau and her team have managed to slow down light! It’s mind bending! Give this a listen:

Now I don’t know about you, but I find this absolutely amazing, I mean she’s managed to stop light! And it seems that she’s still just as astonished as I am! Here’s a short interview with her about the project.

In 2007, Professor Hau expanded upon her '05 light-stopping breakthrough by transforming light into matter, and then back again.

As Hau mentioned in the video; the ability to turn light into matter and then back again, could revolutionize the way we transfer and store information for personal, industrial and the worldwide web. But as interesting as that may be, the Star Trek fan in me couldn’t help thinking of another possible – if impractical - application for this discovery, teleportation. I know that seems mad, but physicists have shown that its possible to teleport single atoms from one place to another, so why not a couple billion particles? And if it’s possible to turn light into matter then shouldn’t the reverse be possible? (Without incinerating the object in question, of course.)

Anyway, teleportation aside, these kinds of advances in technology and science really do fascinate me. I love learning knew things especially if the knowledge is new itself and I hope you learned something too. 


Biomimicry: Cephalopods That Change Their Spots by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

an amazing video of a camouflaging octopus. this is a section of a TED talk by David Gallo. the whole thing can be seen here

One of my greatest loves in the animal kingdom is the cephalopods family. They are an amazingly diverse groups of creatures with around 800 different species, which include octopuses, squids, and the little known cuttlefish. Much like alligators, snapping turtles, and hagfish, cephalopods have remained nearly unchanged for around 438 million years. Many cephalopods are capable of complex cognitive tasks, can learn complex associations and a few captive specimens have been known to consistently escape their aquarium habitats.  But for me their most impressive trait is their ability to change the color and shape of their skin in order to camouflage themselves in nearly any environment.



They achieve this by contracting and expanding special pigment sacks in their skin cells – called chromatophores - to create different colors. These contractions and expansions can occur in isolated areas, or across the whole animal, effectively giving cephalopods an infinite range of color combinations and patterns. They can do this extremely fast. Some species of squid and cuttlefish even use flashing colors to mesmerize their prey, immobilizing them, before they strike. 



Along with these color cells some squids have an additional layer of iridescent cells beneath their chromatophores called iridophores. Unlike most colors we see, which are caused by pigments absorbing and reflecting certain wavelengths of light, iridescence is caused by structures interfering with the reflectance of light, causing the wavelengths to interact with one another and creating intense, almost metallic hues. The squids use special nerve pathways to break up or reform these iridescent structures in order to give their skin iridescence on queue! Unlike the very fast changes seen in chromatophores, however, the alteration in iridophores moves more slowly, cycling through the rainbow from red to blue over a period of about 15 seconds.

I also found this neat video made by Creature Cast, a podcast about nature, which explains how squids change color. brings you stories about the unexpected world of animals. In our first episode, Sophia Tintori and Alison Sweeney talk about the colors of squid. This work is provided under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license. Music by That Thing Over There and Lucky Dragons.

I find this ability absolutely amazing! I wish I had the power to basically glow or turn a million different colors on queue. Having said that, it does present some very interesting Biomimicry angles to work from:

  • Understanding and mimicking cephalopod’s ability to change the hue of the their skin could be used for peace-keeping uniforms and exploratory wear to help soldiers or scientists better camouflage themselves.
  • Paints could be developed that change hue in order help regulate heating and cooling for homes and buildings.
  • Self-colorizing windows or glass in general could be developed to make the world a more beautiful place, set the tone in healing environments, make exhibitions more dynamic.
  • Or maybe everyday clothes could use change shade or consistency so fabrics would breath better or protect us form the sun.

All these are just ideas, but I hoped you learned, or liked something! These animals are truly amazing and I will be adding them to my list of animals to study and mimic in the future!



A Crash Course in, well, Crash Course! by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


Usually on this blog I like to talk about various science topics, or stars, or slugs, and ramble on about things I've found or researched. But today I feel like relaxing and recommending. 


Over the past few months I have become hooked on a YouTube channel called Crash Course. It’s hosted by brothers Hank and John Green, who some of you may know is the amazing author of The Fault in Our Stars. (Which I have to admit I’ve never read. Sorry John) Anyway, they have a huge range of videos that deal with world history, chemistry, biology and literature. (Right up my ally in other words) The videos are funny informative and, in my case at least, enthralling.  So, with out further ado I’d like to share a few of my favorites here in the hope that you will love them too. Enjoy! 

The Last Time We Passed This Way by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


252 million years ago, 95% of the species on the planet went extinct. This was the largest of five massive extinctions in Earth's history, and man-made polution, natural habitat destruction, and population growth are creating the sixth. 

What has to happen to get us to change?

Sea levels are rising, weather patterns are becoming deadly, species are vanishing forever, climate change refugees are on the rise. 

Here's a video made by the very reputable Scientific American:

WOW. Just wow. To be honest it really saddens me that humanity has managed to mess up our planet so much, in such a small amount of time.  It’s true that all life changes and leaves its mark on its environment, but such drastic and negative change on the scale humans have created is frightening, maybe irreversible, and at the very least, shameful.


Let's first deal with this "defense" of trashing our environment by those who say, "Oh well, you know the earth has gone through many cycles of warming and cooling, and we're still here to tell about it!"

Every time I hear some "know it all" us that excuse, I find it hard to believe they have more than a 9th grade education. If you weren't sleeping through Earth Science class, you will remember that WE didn't even exist the last time the earth went through a major climate upheaval. 

Homo sapiens have only been around for a few million years and the last climate crisis was 65 million years ago.  To add insult to injury, that argument bypasses the fact that during major shifts in the earth's climate 50% to 92% of life disappeared entirely. Why would anyone think our fragile human existence would be spared and we would be among the survivors? After most mass extinctions, the only remaining life are tiny creatures with the survival capacity of cockroaches and rats. Humans are not that guy! 

To get specific, earth does go through cycles of warming and cooling, but anyone who’s actually done their homework can tell you that in the past hundred years CO2 levels have skyrocketed, sea levels have risen, deserts have expanded, supplies of fresh water have dried up and populations have grown at alarming rates. If you remember nothing from this article except that next fact, THAT is enough:

The last time CO2 levels rose above 400ppm, 97% of species on earth died. That rise took place over 25,000 years. The recent rise has taken only 100 years.

Here is a passage from a page on the NASA website that is so moving, I just HAD to paste here for you:

“NASA scientists react to 400 ppm carbon milestone”

“The global concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere – the primary driver of recent climate change – has reached 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in recorded history, according to data from the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

Since 1958, the Mauna Loa Observatory has been gathering data on how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide has increased by about 24 percent since the beginning of this record. (Source: NOAA)

We rounded up a few scientists here at NASA and asked them what passing 400 ppm means to them. 

Current [atmospheric] CO2 values are more than 100 ppm higher than at any time in the last one million years (and maybe higher than any time in the last 25 million years). This new record represents an increase of 85 ppm in the 55 years since David Keeling began making measurements at Mauna Loa. Even more disturbing than the magnitude of this change is the fact that the rate of CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere has been steadily increasing over the last few decades, meaning that future increases will happen faster. When averaged over 55 years, the increase has been about 1.55 ppm CO2 per year. However, the most recent data suggest that the annual increase is more than 2.75 ppm CO2 per year.

These increases in atmospheric CO2 are causing real, significant changes in the Earth system now, not in some distant future climate, and will continue to be felt for centuries to come. We can study these impacts to better understand the way the Earth will respond to future changes, but unless serious actions are taken immediately, we risk the next threshold being a point of no return in mankind's unintended global-scale geoengineering experiment.

– Dr. Charles Miller

Researcher specializing in the remote sensing of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases; Principal investigator, Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment (CARVE) mission

We are a society that has inadvertently chosen the double-black diamond run without having learned to ski first. It will be a bumpy ride.

– Dr. Gavin Schmidt

Climatologist and climate modeler at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies”

If we want humanity to survive the next hundred years we’ve got to change. And that means an effort from everyone. You, your mother, the guy who runs the local general store, the florist, world leaders and siblings – everybody. Out in the world there are many non-profits, foundations, and companies developing devices, systems, and running campaigns to try and change the way we treat the environment, and in small parts that has to be everybody’s goal too. Habits are hard to change, but sometimes we have no choice in the matter if we want to save something we value. 




Good- Bye Plastic! by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


Before I go into the neat thing I want to share with you today, I have a video I'd like you to watch first. It is extremely powerful and, while very hard to watch, it's exactly the kind of wakeup call most of us need to permanently change our habits.

Though this video may be hard to watch, it’s something everyone needs to see, no matter how heart-wrenching. Everything about our global cultural view about plastic needs to change: that means our habits, processes, and educations. And that means an effort from everyone.

So to lighten the mood of this post, I want to share with you the amazing invention of Boyan Slat, a college student only two years older than me who’s developed a technique to help clean our Earth’s oceans... It will astound you.

I find this project absolutely amazing! The thing that really gets me about this though, is that this kid is only 19. Just two years older than me! In my opinion, that should be a motivator to any young person who doesn’t think they can change things – because they sure as heck can! Yes it will be a small change on everybody’s part, but it small changes on everybody’s part that got us here in the first place!

This could change sooo much and it’s so close to being a reality. You can reach the site here (link) and donate to the foundation. I really encourage you do. They’re only 15% away from reaching their goal and this project really needs to happen. 

BIOMIMICRY: Leaf or Slug? by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


This weird creature is Elysia Chlorotica or the Eastern Emerald Elysia. I stumbled upon this little wonder while poking around the Encyclopedia of Life website (, and couldn’t leaf the page! (please excuse that pun. It just had to happen)

Anyway, Elysia are solar powered! Well sort of… 


The diet of the Elysia consists mainly of algae. Once digested the slug extracts the chloroplasts from the plant and deposits them in its own cells. (Whoa, really!) To obtain algal chloroplasts the slugs use their radula (a special type of “tooth”) to pierce the membrane of the algae cell and suck out its contents. But there’s a catch; the only way the slug can use the chloroplast is to employ several proteins that only the algae can make. So the slug has lifted the algae genes and incorporated them in its own DNA! WOW!! This amazing creature only needs to eat twice a year, and the rest of the time its just soaking in the rays.


We could learn a thing or two about the advantages of the leaf shape.  It’s no coincidence that the slug looks the way it does. This unique shape has the duel purpose of providing camouflage and helps the slug photosynthesize. The shape of a leaf provides the best surface area for capturing sunlight and (in plants) expelling gasses. 

If we were to look at this creature and its abilities through the lens of Biomimicry, then it gives us a few interesting ideas to ponder:

  • First, the fact that both plants and this slug have evolved to be this shape for a reason is intriguing. This shape obviously works for them why not for us?
  • We could redesign solar panels to have the same basis shape and structure as leaves allowing them to collect as much light as possible. We could even arrange solar panels on poles imitating the structure of plants.
  • Looking at what the slug actually does – steals chloroplasts - we could create materials that already have solar cells built into them, such was the backs of laptops, glass for windows, car exteriors and roof tiles.

I’m not sure how practical or functional some of these ideas are, but thinking about ways to improve our society’s environmental impact is the first step to changing. 


College Course at the University of Chicago by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

Via: Me

One of my last posts was about my three weeks at the University of Chicago, and in that post I mentioned the project I did for the class. My project, in summation, consisted of making color images of galaxies and then using those images along with the spectra (plots of the amount of light a given object gives off as a function of wavelength of light) to discover what types of stars were in said galaxies. Most cosmic objects have spectra, and by measuring the wavelengths of light from an object astronomers can learn the composition of that object. 


This project was a lot of fun and I learned a heck of a lot. When I presented my project, my professors were very impressed and two people who worked at the Yerkes Observatory (where we studied) even wanted to see my work! One lady from the observatory asked if she could use my presentation to teach middle schoolers how to make color images.

To make it easier to understand I've put my project's final presentation in video format, below. (Please note: the slides move somewhat quickly so be ready to hit pause if need be!)

I created every image in this presentation, and as I said before, it was a lot of fun! It was very rewarding to go from a black and white image to a beautiful color image of a galaxy. I think I’ll continue to make images, so be on the lookout for them!

Via: Me