Our species takes a lot of pride in technology, to the point that it's pretty much the one thing we lord over all the others. But maybe we're too quick to pat ourselves on the back; after all, what we still consider cutting edge, some creatures have been doing since before we even came along.
While companies and governments both are spending billions trying to build a future that runs on hydrogen, the tiny, stupid termite has been doing it for millions of years.
In fact, the reason termites like to chew on your house is that they have a whole intricate system working inside their guts that turns wood pulp into hydrogen, and hydrogen into energy.
They're so efficient that the U.S. Department of Energy is studying them in hopes of just stealing their method; scaling it up so hydrogen could be produced commercially with the same process--hopefully from a gigantic, terrifying 80 foot-tall robot termite.
Yeah, there's no way this will end poorly.
That's actually not the only place termites put our energy industry to shame; they build massive, complex mounds up to 30 feet in height with a specific design to manage climate control, using the shape of the mounds and tunnels to drive hot air circulation to specific locations (such as to the rooms that house their fungal gardens).
That's right: They have community gardens, which they ventilate with the equivalent of an HVAC system while the termite police chase all of the bums off the grass. And their entire nests are giant cooling towers, dispersing waste heat while the workers toil along inside.
When We Invented It:
We're still decades away from an efficient system for producing cheap hydrogen. And while we do have a firm grasp on central air systems (securing the patent in 1851) we came up with it about 250 million years after termites initially unveiled the technology. Though we do have a firm grasp of killing termites with rolled up ads from Best Buy. So we win, really.
Cuttlefish are not fish, but cephalopods (essentially like Dr. Zoidberg's head disembodied and floating along in the ocean). Nearly every animal on Earth that possesses teeth (including humans) finds the cuttlefish tasty, so they've had to develop some pretty radical defenses just to stay alive. They include an almost Predator-like ability to blend in with their environment in real time.
Seriously, the videos of them pulling this disappearing act almost look fake:
The cuttlefish is able to change colors instantaneously, and even alter its skin texture to better blend in.
How do they do it? Well, basically they have the equivalent of a flat screen television wrapped over every inch of their bodies. Their skin is made up of colored layers, and tiny muscles contract in patterns to let different colors show through and thus display an image. They could broadcast an episode of Law and Order on their bodies if they wanted to.
You think we're kidding? MIT and other researchers actually built a flat screen TV specifically based off the cuttlefish design. It's made of sandwiched polymers which expand as they're given different voltages, the same way the cuttlefish's skin does. The simplicity and low cost of the cuttlefish design allow the TV to be ultra-thin, reportedly down to one micron, which would make it invisible when viewed edge-on. The little bastards know what they're doing.
It's still a fucking ridiculous looking animal.
When We Invented It:
The earliest television was launched in 1928, and they've come a long way since then. Edwin Thomas, the MIT professor developing the cuttlefish screen, has been working with science teachers to produce a version cheap enough, safe enough and simple enough for middle and high school students to build in chemistry class and then presumably have knife fights over who gets to take the thing home when it's finished.
So when your jackass neighbor wants to show off his 120" plasma, you can curb the invite with your wall-mounted, flayed and electrocuted cephalopod.
Pharmaceutical companies are the goliaths of the medical industry, often fueling huge breakthroughs in biochemical studies and synthesis in their never-ending quest to find a pill that will make them shitloads of money. But when imagination in the lab fails, they take to beating the bush, looking at exotic jungle plant life for new medicines.
"Get out of there, medicine!"
Once again, the animals are way ahead of us. It's called zoopharmacognosy--which means "an animal's knowledge of medicine"--and back when mankind was trying to cure infections with mercury and a trip to the local wizard, elephants were using a well-stocked medicine cabinet.
For instance, they commonly engage in geophagy (eating dirt) in order to neutralize toxins they may have ingested from plants, and have been known to use the Boraginaceace tree to induce labor, because if you're about to push the world's largest land creature out of your vagina (tusks included), you probably want the sonofabitch out as quickly as possible.
It was also discovered that a species of South African elephant had managed to rebound from near-extinction by consuming ganoderma, a mushroom used in traditional Chinese medicine as an anti-cancer and anti-viral agent.
Also they stick their trunks in each other's assholes.
When We Invented It:
The Greek doctor Hippocrates is known as the father of medicine because he started the first rational approach, rather than the ritualized healing and shamanism that previously prevailed. The Arab world got into the game in 750 with Avicenna, who was also called the father of medicine (that's right, medicine has two fathers, making it a member of a progressive family unit that is still illegal in California).
Scientific biomedical research didn't take off until around 1880, when we discovered bacteria and then in 1900 when we discovered how to kill it. That's right; it took us that long just to learn to wash our hands.