Mother Nature never seems to be good enough for us, as we humans are constantly trying to improve upon her designs with synthetic creatures. Here's some of the more fantastical faux-fauna humans have built.
Last weekend I was watching Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog's 2005 documentary about doomed ursine whisperer Timothy Treadwell, who lived unarmed among the bears of Alaska's Katmai National Park for 13 summers. That is, until a hungry coastal grizzly ate him and his girlfriend Amie Huguenard in 2003.
As I watched Treadwell's tragic tale unfold (and I ruminated on how I really wanted Herzog's Teutonic tenor to narrate my grocery list), my mind turned to a man whose life goals were in diametric opposition to Treadwell's: Troy James Hurtubise, a bear attack survivor who rose to fame thanks to his lifelong quest to construct a grizzly-proof suit of armor. You can witness Hurtubise's brutal (and slightly preposterous) suit tests here and here. And like Treadwell, Hurtubise had a documentary made about his life — 1996's Project Grizzly, which you can watch in full here. (Hurtubise later graduated from bears to building full-blown military exoskeletons.)
Treadwell and Hurtubise were on the opposite sides of the ursine spectrum — one was attempting to become a bear, whereas the other was hellbent to use human ingenuity to thwart the animals entirely. But what about those in the middle of the spectrum, those engineers and roboticists who seek to emulate animals using high technology (and basic puppetry)? Here's an overview of some of reality's wackier attempts at biomimcry.
Brady Barr's Hippo Costume
Several years ago, Dr. Brady Barr donned a hippo costume for a National Geographic special to collect hippopotamus sweat. The experience was nail-biting, but nowhere as harrowing as the mechanical rhino from Ace Ventura.
The Clockwork Tiger of Bruges
Belgian artist Dirk DeWulf built Shiva the tiger for the express purposes of bringing joy to confused bystanders and pretending to be the mayor of Tigeropolois.
The Robotic Manta Ray
German automation firm Festo builds an ersatz aquatic animals, including a flying manta ray and jellyfish. They've also dabbled in aquatic models, such as this eerie robotic ray.
Carnegie Mellon's Snakebots
We've mentioned CMU's herpetological bots before, and they're just so wonderfully creepy, what with their ability to navigate mazes and crawl spaces. You can see more of them here.
Theo Jansen's Kinetic Sculptures
They don't resemble any creature on this planet, but a strong breeze gives Jansen's elephantine Strandbeests a life of their own.
Jumbo the Mechanical Elephant
Back in ye olde days, the only thing more satisfying than a cold sarsaparilla and jaunty promenade was a ride on Jumbo the mechanical elephant. How mirthful!
The Sultan's Elephant
Similarly, the Sultan's Elephant was a 40-foot-tall mechanical elephant that toured through Europe to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Jules Verne's death. Apparently this beast had the ability to travel through time to boot. We wouldn't be surprised.
Carnegie Mellon's Groundhog
Along with building snakebots, Carnegie Mellon has built underground mapping bots that emulates the underground traveling capabilities of subterranean mammals. You can read more about it here.
The rest of the mechanical menagerie
For some other robotic beasts, check out this hummingbird, DARPA's robodragonfly and fish, and the robotic ghost knifefish. Also check out Cybernetic Zoo for plenty of old timey mechanical animals.
Top photo by Phillip Hunt via Ronnie Del Carmen.