Nature’s patterns

From a very early age we use patterns to help make sense of the world around us.  When we recognize things that repeat in a logical way, we can organize information and make thoughtful predictions based on the patterns we observe. 

Plants and animals offer countless examples of patterns that offer us visual clues to the order that lies within the natural world.

Patterns can be found wherever a set of numbers, colours, shapes or sounds are repeated over and over. Usually, we think of patterns as something identical that repeats but patterns we see in nature don’t always appear that way. A zebra’s stripes are a pattern we easily recognize, even though no stripe is identical to another.

Patterns offer nature any number of advantages for survival.  For a plant a pattern may allow it to grow efficiently, using the least amount of energy while maximizing exposure to sunlight and forming a pathway for nutrition throughout its structure. It might also allow for the housing of a greater number of seeds, giving it a greater chance of reproducing. For animals a pattern might act as an effective form of camouflage or in the case of symmetry, an indicator of health and attractiveness as a mate.

Types of patterns you might see in nature

Symmetry is when a structure has balanced or similar proportions on each of its sides and can be divided into parts of an equal shape and size. A breathtaking example of symmetry is the tail of a peacock.

spiral is a coil or curl that forms a series of circles that become gradually larger or smaller. One of the finest examples of a spiral is the pressure resistant shell of a nautilus.

Fractals are patterns that geometrically repeat so that smaller and smaller copies of that pattern are found within themselves. Trees are great examples of fractals as from the trunk to the tip, each branch is a smaller copy of what came before it.

Stripes and spots are natural markings that are unique to not only a species but an individual in that species. A zebra’s stripes allow it to blend in with a herd while a tiger’s stripes make it recognizable to other tigers.

Tessellation, or tiling, is a repeating pattern of the same shape without any overlaps or gaps. Think of the strength and usefulness of the shape of a hexagon within a honeycomb.

The visual beauty many of these patterns possess suggests they belong to the world of art rather than that of science but since the dawn of time scientists have been drawn to patterns in nature. Mathematicians, in particular, have found the mysteries behind patterns particularly intriguing.

In 1202 AD medieval mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci came up with the Fibonacci sequence, one of the most famous formulas in mathematics. In it, each number in the sequence is equal to the two numbers before it. It looks like this: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, and so on. 

This simple equation has been called “nature’s secret code,” and “nature’s universal rule” and can describe most of the complex spiral patterns found in nature. 

The Fibonacci sequence plays a big role in how leaves, branches, flowers and seeds are arranged in the plant kingdom.  On many trees, leaves are aligned in a pattern that includes two Fibonacci numbers. Starting from any leaf, after one, two, three or five turns of the spiral there is always a leaf aligned with the first.  Depending on the species, this will be the second, the third, the fifth, the eighth or the thirteenth leaf.

The number of petals on a flower can also reflect “nature’s secret code.” Lilies and Irises have three petals, buttercups and rosehips have five, delphiniums have eight, some daisies have 13, black-eyed susans have 21 and asteracea have 34, 55, or 89.

Article originally published in Brainspace Magazine Spring 2021

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