Patterns in Nature: Definition & Examples

Patterns in Nature: Definition & Examples
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  • 0:04 What Are Patterns?
  • 0:47 Types of Patterns: Symmetry
  • 1:45 Fractals & Spirals
  • 2:24 Fibonacci Patterns &…
  • 4:07 Types of Line Patterns
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Friedl

Sarah has two Master's, one in Zoology and one in GIS, a Bachelor's in Biology, and has taught college level Physical Science and Biology.

Look carefully at the world around you and you might start to notice that nature is filled with many different types of patterns. In this lesson we will discuss some of the more common ones we come across.

What Are Patterns?

All around us, we see a great diversity of living things, from the microscopic to the gigantic, from the simple to the complex, from bright colors to dull ones. One of the most intriguing things we see in nature is patterns. We tend to think of patterns as sequences or designs that are orderly and that repeat. But we can also think of patterns as anything that is not random.

For example, we recognize the spots on a giraffe as a pattern, but they're not regular, nor are any of the spots the same size or shape. However, other patterns are orderly as is seen in the symmetry of a sea star or a snowflake.

Types of Patterns: Symmetry

Biologists, mathematicians, chemists, physicists, artists, and many others study and appreciate patterns. Let's take a look at some of the different types of patterns to help you appreciate them as well.

Symmetry is when different sides of something are alike. These reflections may be mirror images with only two sides, like the two sides of our bodies; they may be symmetrical on several sides, like the inside of an apple sliced in half; or they might be symmetrical on all sides, like the different faces of a cube.

We understand symmetry quite well in living organisms because it is a function of their environment. In order to balance, we need to have symmetrical body structure so we don't fall over from imbalanced weight. What we don't understand very well is symmetry in non-living things. Snowflakes have six-fold symmetry but it is unclear why this occurs. Likewise, the splash from a water droplet is also symmetrical, and while beautiful it is still somewhat of a mystery.

Fractals & Spirals

Fractals are the 'never-ending' patterns that repeat indefinitely as the pattern is iterated on an infinitely smaller scale. We see this type of pattern in trees, rivers, mountains, shells, clouds, leaves, lightning, and more.

Spirals are another common pattern in nature that we see more often in living things. Think of the horns of a sheep, the shell of a nautilus, and the placement of leaves around a stem. A special type of spiral, the logarithmic spiral, is one that gets smaller as it goes. We see this pattern in hurricanes, galaxies, and some seashells.

Fibonacci Patterns & Tessellations

You may have heard of the Fibonacci sequence, which is the sequence of numbers that goes 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21. . . and so on. Each number is the sum of the two numbers before it; for example 1 + 1 = 2; 1 + 2 = 3; 3 + 5 = 8; etc.

How does this work in nature? We see that some plants exhibit a Fibonacci pattern, like the branches of a tree. You start with the main branch at the bottom; it splits off so that you have two; it splits off again so that you have 3, and so forth.

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