Although organisms obey the same physical laws as inanimate objects the evolutionary implications of these laws are often neglected. Physical factors influence the fitness value of traits and play an important role in the course of evolution. These are the areas of investigation that interest us.
Saguaro cacti can grow 15 meters tall, and despite their shallow root systems can withstand storm winds up to 38 meters per second without being blown over. Grooves in the cacti’s surface may contribute to its resilience, by adding structural support and/or through reducing aerodynamic loads. The latter theory mirrors the concept of dimples on a golf ball; namely, grooves create turbulence in the flow near the cactus, which allows air flow to track further around the cactus before separating. The result is less drag for a given wind speed than a smooth cactus would experience.
Indeed, recent experiments on a grooved cylinder with a pneumatically-controlled shape showed exactly that; the morphable cylinder’s drag was consistently significantly lower than fixed samples. Cacti do change their shapes somewhat as their water content changes, but they don’t have the ability for up-to-the-minute alterations. Nevertheless, their adaptations can inspire engineered creations that morph to reduce wind impact. (Image credit: A. Levine; research credit: M. Guttag and P. Reis)