One of the first 3D printing projects my designer friends (and 3D printing gurus) at Growthobjects ever worked on, back in 2007, was a special set of 3D printed flowers with Braille words written on their petals. It’s curious that a new set of 3D printed flowers has now been used by University of Washington researchers to show that Hawk Moths search for their food using their sense of touch, rather then eyesight.
Led by Eric Octavio Campos and published in its entirety on the British Ecological Society’s journal Functional Ecology, the study sought to understand the way the behavior of plant pollinators affected the evolution of flower shapes. In the past scientists had to rely on natural flower shapes or invest considerable resources in producing hand-made mock ups, which also made it difficult to compare results among different teams. 3D printing, however, enabled the researchers – funded by the Office of Naval Research, the National Institutes of Health and a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship – to better control their floral mock-ups.
To investigate the feeding behavior of the Manduca sexta, that is the Hawk Moth, Eric Octavio Campos and his team designed and 3D printed two sets of “digital flowers” to compare with the insect’s behavior of flying and hovering in order to feed from trumpet-like petunias. One set of 3D printed flowers was curved like a trumpet, while the other resembled a flat disc with a hole in the center. The fact that the moths fed much more successfully from the curved than the flat flowers seemed to suggest that this nocturnal species is using touch rather than sight as the primary means of finding nectar.
“3D printing is a unique opportunity to explore the interactions between floral form and pollinator performance,” Campos said. “Such studies can help elucidate the details of how pollinator visitation influences the evolution of floral shape in nature, and the extent to which floral forms are the result of specializations between one plant and one pollinator species.”
This is just the beginning for the UW team. Being able to reduce the time and cost of developing the flowers will allow UW and the other funding institutions to invest money in widening the scope of the research. 3D printing will also make it easier and easier to develop new flowers based on previous findings, and to quite literally “cross pollinate” this research with that in other universities, thus, allowing a whole new field of discovery to bloom.