Unlocking the mechanical secrets of giant Amazonian waterlilies

“Their strength allows giant Amazonian waterlily leaves to occupy a huge surface for light capture despite their low biomass relative to other waterlilies. That’s the secret to their success.” said Dr Thorogood.

Away from the glasshouse pond and back in its natural habitat – the quick-drying ephemeral pools of the Amazon basin – the giant Amazonian waterlily evolved with an advantage in the race among plants for space and light.

Its giant leaves unfold quickly and cheaply, jostling for position on the surface of the water, to create a mosaic of lily pads that block the light to any plants beneath.

The leaf’s flexible framework can withstand elastic deformation to avoid damage from wading birds. Small holes on the surface drain trapped rainwater. Spikes on the undercarriage of the leaf push other plants out of the way as the leaf unfolds and defend against nibbling fish.

‘”he leaves are truly multi-purpose,’ said Dr Thorogood. ‘The plants are well adapted to the challenges of their habitat.”

Despite captivating artists, architects, and Green Planet audiences alike, until now, little was known about the secret behind the size and strength of the floating giants.

“Remarkable structures in nature can help us to unlock design challenges in engineering. The form of these waterlilies could inspire giant floating platforms, such as solar panels in the ocean. There’s a lot we can learn from leaves.” concluded Dr Thorogood.

Read the published findings in Science Advances.

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