6 Modern Technologies Animals Invented Millions of Years Ago
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.
Termites Already Have a Hydrogen Economy
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 Have Built-In Flat Screen Displays
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.
Elephants Have Pharmaceuticals
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.
Diving Bell Spiders Have... Diving Bells
So let's say you're a spider. And, following the advice of that song in The Little Mermaid, you decide you want to devote yourself to a life under the sea. How the hell are you going to do that? You're a fucking spider.
Get a job, you fucking spider.
Well, you could do what the Diving Bell Spider does and build your own freaking mini-submarine. It spins a balloon-like web in which it can trap oxygen and breathe like a raver huffing nitrous oxide out of a Hefty bag.
When We Invented It:
Although Aristotle described one in the fourth century, the first modern diving bell wasn't created and used until 1535. This may seem pretty early by human standards, but it's nothing compared to the 300 million year head start that spiders have on us.
And while diving bells and their derivative technologies allow us to blissfully explore the depths of the ocean and marvel at its beauty, we must keep in mind the ever-present threat of giant poison spiders preying on our sealabs and nuclear subs.
"Does that sound like a spider with a crowbar to you?"
Homing Pigeons' Navigation Systems are Better Than Ours
Despite being famous for shitting all over everything and routinely getting hit by cars, pigeons--and specifically, homing pigeons--possess a navigation system that still makes a TomTom look like a big pile of shit.
You can take a homing pigeon, stick it in the trunk of your car, and drive it hundreds of miles away to a spot it has never been before. Release it, and it'll find its way back to its nest. There are recorded instances of these birds finding their way home from 1,100 miles away.
Many theories attempt to account for this mutant power, including suggestions that the pigeons rely on the magnetic fields of the Earth somehow.
"I'm carrying a map, you dumb asses."
During World War II America even sank money into a project that would use homing pigeons to steer missiles, though it was soon realized that putting massive destructive power into the beak of an animal that will happily eat a Filet-O-Fish out of a soggy public ashtray was probably unwise.
When We Invented It:
People have been using maps for quite a while now, but the only things that come close to replicating what the homing pigeon can do are modern Global Positioning System devices, which didn't go online until 1995. Not only does the pigeon's system fit neatly inside its tiny pigeon brain, but they've never needed to consult an iPhone to find the nearest restaurant awning to shit on.
Malaysian Ants Have Suicide Bombs
Oh, did you think it was only the awesome inventions the animals came up with first?
Malaysian ants have glands full of poison, which isn't all that unusual. What is unusual is the way they will, under threat, inflate those glands and then make them fucking explode.
They detonate with such force that they completely obliterate their own head, spraying poison in all directions. So when predators intrude, these crazy bastards wait until they're within the blast radius and let loose.
"This plan is bulletproof."
Commonly referred to as the "Now Nobody Gets to Eat Me" defense, this culmination of evolutionary events seems at best misguided, but is effective nonetheless. Because honestly, you can't boil a hot dog if it fucking explodes the second you open the refrigerator, and if that explosion shot poison all over the kitchen you would stop buying hot dogs altogether.
When We Invented It:
One of the first explosives was black powder, originating in China around the ninth century. As the centuries progressed, that powder evolved into grenades, land mines, warheads, aerial bombs and artillery shells.
While these devices allow for the inclusion of explosions into any formal or informal affair, we as human beings have yet to master the art of detonating our own heads on cue, which, as the Malaysian ants have demonstrated, is the pinnacle of home defense.
Josh Pearce is a Dutch-Frisian exotic dancer and courtesan who was executed by firing squad for espionage during World War I. He writes angry stuff at Book of Tangents.
To see how animals have further made us look like raging jackasses, check out 5 Diabolical Animals That Out-Witted Humans. But find out why we probably deserved it, in 7 Insane Military Attempts To Weaponize Animals.
And stop by Cracked.com's Top Picks to see how animals innovated sex before we did, also.