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In 1859, Charles Darwin proposed his landmark theory of evolution by means of natural selection. Scientists were propelled to question why patterns existed in nature, in animals, birds and marine life. This thought extended to the kingdom of plants as well. The spots of a leopard, the plumage of a peacock, or the patterns on a giraffe must have some adaptive reason for these creatures. It got people thinking about the pine cone’s scales being spirally shaped, the way the chameleon curls its tail, and the ripples that are created when wind moves grains of sand. When you think about it, patterns in nature can be intriguing.

In 1917, a zoologist named D’arcy Wentworth Thompson published a treatise of his own. He postulated that the patterns that exist in nature are curbed by physical and chemical laws. He didn’t openly disagree with Darwin, but he exposed people to the idea that other factors may be part of the process. Thompson surmised that the existence of animal patterns was explainable by the theory of Darwin. For instance, the leopard had spots as this offered a great way to camouflage itself in the tall grass.

Thompson argued, nonetheless, that Darwinian science didn‘t offer any explanation as to how natural patterns were created on different creatures and plants. The zoologist went on to say that chemicals get diffused through developing tissue in animals like the leopard. This is why pigments get positioned in dark and light spots. A similar way of pattern formation occurs in sea anemones too. What follows are some interesting patterns you can find in nature, some obvious, and some you need to pay attention to, to discover.


For all those people fortunate enough to witness a white Christmas year in and year out, they know the sight of the familiar snowflake. While this six-sided hexagonal wonder falls from the sky every winter, there’s a simple explanation for its pattern in nature. Noteworthy are the patterns that take on various combinations and permutations, but are symmetrical. A snowflake is just water vapor that freezes from humid air. That’s all that’s known for the present. Snowflakes are said to have a six-fold symmetry.

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Structures from Turing

When you really stop to consider, you’ll discover another system of pattern formation in nature that keeps sprouting. This crops up both the living and inanimate world. Named after the research of mathematician Alan Turing, they are called, quite aptly, Turing Structures. Curious as to how patterns are formed, he began with asking how a fertilized egg turns into a human being by developing as it does. A fertilized egg starts out as a sphere. Turing’s theory, in its very basic form, states that chemicals that exist in space interact. These produce differences from one space to the other. As a result, patterns are created.

Turing went further to explain that something of this kind may be the cause of certain patterns on the skins of some animals. Insect patterns are probably caused by this effect too. In other things, like ripples forming on sand due to wind, this may be the case as well.

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Symmetrical Patterns

Pervasive and unavoidable in the living world, symmetry is a concept that we are all too used to. Animals possess mirror or bilateral symmetrical structures, just like their friends in the plant kingdom, leaves. Some flowers, like orchids also have these features. Many flowers have what is known as rotational symmetry, also called radial symmetry. Sea anemones are good examples of this type of symmetry. Starfish, sea lilies and sea urchins are echinoderms that have five-fold symmetry that form their natural patterns.

Rotational symmetry can be seen at different levels, operating on different scales in the world of the non-living too. For instance, a splash that makes a typical crown pattern when a stone is thrown into a pool of water. This is the case with the rotund shape of planets as well as the rings around Saturn.

Bilateral symmetrical patterns are seen on animals like tigers. Rotational or radial symmetry in nature is seen in sea anemones who do not move much as adults. They do have two sides that determine their upper area and lower side. Echinoderms were bilaterally similar in earlier times, but scientists explain their five-fold symmetry as an effect of evolutionary development.

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Spiral Patterns

You can see several spiral patterns in nature. For instance, take the nautilus, which is a cephalopod mollusk. Every portion of its shell is a near-copy of the adjacent portion. The spiral is a logarithmic one.

In plants, spiral patterns can be viewed in the way leaves are positioned on the stem. You may also see this pattern in flower and seed heads, such as the sunflower. Pineapples are fruits that show such structures too. Scales in pine cones are another good instance of this, where the spirals go both clockwise and anti-clockwise. Fibonacci’s sequences may explain some spiral natural patterns. In the case of leaves affixed in alternate positions, running up a stem, a single spiral rotation connects two leaves. The pattern ratio is, as a result, 1:2. You can see examples of spirals in the cross section of a red cabbage.

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Tree Structures

The first person to talk about the patterns of branches on trees was Leonardo da Vinci. During the period of the Italian Renaissance, da Vinci made a startling revelation. He said that all the branches on a tree, at each stage of reaching a particular height, when taken together, are equal to its trunk, in thickness.

Generally speaking, when two child branches split off a parent branch, the surface areas of each child branch, added together, equal the total area of the parent. This is an acceptable explanation to most biologists about branch patterns. Experts say that this natural pattern formation in trees allows trees to tolerate strong winds and gale conditions.

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Fractal Constructs

In mathematics, a fractal is a pattern that is never-ending. They are infinitely complicated patterns that are identical across ranging scales. Created by repeating a process over and over again, like in a loop, these are dynamic structures. Such objects as clouds, river networks, snow, broccoli, and blood vessels are all examples of things that have fractal patterns in nature. Objects like these show a self-similar pattern over extended scales, but these are finite. The plant Angelica’s flower head, is a sphere made of small spherical structures, so self-similar.

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Chaos Theory

We have just explained what fractal structures are. Chaos relates to fractals, in that, it produces dynamic patterns in nature. Under specific conditions, regularly ordered patterns can be produced out of randomness and erratic reactions. For instance, a stream flows down a mountain according to the laws of nature and gravity. It is a uniform process, the way it flows, always downward. Nonetheless, parts of it are turbulent when the flow is obstructed by rocks. The rocks themselves are ordered landforms, made from a certain composition, but positioned in an indefinable manner. So, there is order and disorder.

An orderly flow also creates a sinewy pattern of its own. As a river flows, it meanders across taking sediment and gravel with it. This is a natural pattern too. As the river bends, the curve of each loop gets larger and the outside the loop is clean.

The inner portion has the sand and gravel. Meandering causes patterns in the movement of nature, rather than on the physicality of an organism. A sinuous crawling snake is an instance of a meandering pattern.

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Waves, Dunes, Bubbles and Foam

Waves are dynamic patterns in water, caused by winds. As waves in wind or water pass over sand, natural patterns are created in ripples they make. Dunes may create several patterns such as straight lines, domes, crescents and parabolic patterns. When wind makes contact with desert sand, crescents are formed. A bubble is caused in in the foam of rapids in nature. All that foam is, is really a mass of bubbles. If you’ve been rafting, you’ll know. Waterfalls create a great deal of foam as they uniformly down a cliff or mountain top.

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Stripes and Spots

There are the all too familiar patterns we see in nature, from the leopard’s spots to the zebra‘s stripes. We are also used to the ladybug and her dots, and the angel fish and its stripes. The explanations for these are unique. They actually help in the functionality of the creatures. The main function of the markings is so that the animal or fish or insect (or even bird) can be camouflaged. A ladybug won’t be preyed on if it has warning colors.

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The ladybug also tastes bitter to birds of prey. A bird may eat it once, but will spit it out. Then it will recognize other ladybugs by their color and markings and leave well alone. Genes for stripes and spots are inherited from the parents of the organism. The ones that inherit them survive. This explains why patterns occur in nature, but not exactly how, at least according to evolutionary theory.