While I was driving shortly after dusk one day last week, I saw a barn owl fly over the road with a small rodent in its talons.
Such rare, fleeting encounters with nature are great, but common sightings such as the first mourning cloak butterfly of spring, the feathers of a mockingbird plucked by a hawk and the surplus of squirrels made possible by last year's bumper crop of acorns are enjoyable, too.
Many people must feel similarly. As Cape May County Tourism Director Diane Wieland reminded everyone at Richard Stockton College's Jersey Shorecast last month, ecotourists spend $500 million annually in that county alone.
But even for those with little interest in wildlife, nature has promising ways to make all of our lives better.
I recently read about a waterproof glue produced by the aquatic sandcastle worm.
Researchers at the University of Utah think a stronger version of this glue can be used to cement bone fragments too small for metal screws and pins.
One of the world's strangest creatures, the electric eel, is being studied for ideas about making a better fuel cell. Scientists at the National Institute for Standards and Technology in Maryland are learning how its cell membranes allow electrons to pass through and create a large current.
I recalled these promising possibilities from nature last week when I saw a flock of double-crested cormorants migrating northward in a loose V-formation.
That style of formation flying - routinely used by geese and other large waterfowl during migration - could be used by airlines to reduce fuel use and pollution significantly.
The formation makes flight easier, reducing the air drag for each bird down the line. Scientists estimate a flock of 25 birds can fly 70 percent farther using formation flying.
Research led by Ilan Kroo at Stanford University suggests three passenger jets meeting up to fly in formation could reduce fuel consumption by as much as 15 percent. With airlines and cargo haulers spending $3 billion per month on fuel, the savings could be significant.
Even though airliners in formation could be several miles apart, coordinating flights with precision using existing air traffic control methods would be difficult.
That may change, however, as the U.S. moves to the satellite-based NextGen flight control system, which the William J. Hughes Technical Center at Atlantic City International Airport is helping to develop. The NextGen Global Positioning System arranges airplanes precisely and frees them from having to fly over corridors of ground-based radar, making formation flying easier.
Last year, the U.S. Defense Department said it was hiring Boeing to look into formation flight, building on its research that found an aerodynamic benefit with as few as two planes.
I have seen formations of honking geese overhead, and individual geese fly quickly to get in line for an easy flight.
Maybe someday, we will see planes do the same as formations fly the busiest transcontinental and overseas routes with airliners joining and leaving in turn.
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