References for Biology Research

Databases, publications, and websites to help you find inspiring strategies.
Ask Nature is the most direct way to find relevant strategies for biomimetic design, because it’s organized by function. However, while there are approximately 1800 strategies on Ask Nature, there are tens of thousands more to be written up. So while Ask Nature can be used as an excellent starting point to help you find strategies by function, you will likely need to do some deeper research.

This annotated list of databases, sources for primary and secondary literature, and websites will help you find biological strategies relevant to your design challenge. To use any of these resources effectively, you will need to select your search terms and keywords carefully.

Search Tip

If you’re searching for information about a specific organism, you may need all or part of the common or scientific names for that organism. If you’re searching on a function, you’ll want to try various synonyms and variations of the word representing your function (e.g., compress,  compression, and compaction; or filter, strain, and filtering) for a function. For all resources that you search, spend a few minutes learning the most effective way to search or browse for information. It will save you from wasting more time later.


Databases are indexes of published research papers. Some databases are available only at universities that subscribe to them and give subscribers access to numerous online journals. Other databases provide open access. Access to particular journal articles may or may not be possible without access through a subscribing institution. See the section on Journals for some with which we have had particular success.

Subscription databases

If your academic library subscribes to these databases, you may be able to access them online through your library’s website. Public links are not available.

  • Web of Science: Web of Science is our preferred database, after Ask Nature, because it’s easy to use, easy to filter to find what you need, and because it’s specifically about science. Compared to other databases, you will get fewer but more relevant results when looking for biological strategies. For non-biologists, sometimes a review of current findings is helpful, and Web of Science has a filter that allows you to focus on literature reviews. Another valuable part of Web of Science is the ability to do a citation search, which helps you find papers that have cited another paper. This can take you to more recent research articles or to papers about other organisms doing the same thing.
  • BioOne: Another database that focuses on biological, ecological, and environmental science research is BioOne Complete. It provides access to more than 180 high quality, subscribed and open-access titles.
  • Academic Search and Omnifile: These are good multidisciplinary databases, but the number of results can be overwhelming and the filtering system isn’t as helpful as on Web of Science.
  • JSTOR: This database provides full-text access to the archives of scholarly journals. Generally, access to a journal is available from the first issue to within one to three years of the most current issue.


Open Access databases

  • ScienceDirect: ScienceDirect is a leading full-text scientific database offering journal articles and book chapters from nearly 2,500 journals and 26,000 books. For biological strategies, focus on the Life Sciences collection first.
  • Wiley: Wiley Online Library hosts a broad, multidisciplinary collection of online resources covering life, health, and physical sciences; social science; and the humanities. Because it’s multidisciplinary, it will have more irrelevant results than some other databases.
  • Genamics JournalSeek: JournalSeek is a categorized database of journal information available on the Internet. The database presently contains more than 102,000 titles. However, it’s only a way to search for journal titles relevant to your search term, with links to the publishers. It doesn’t provide abstracts or links to articles.
  • PubMed: PubMed comprises more than 24 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. Citations may include links to full-text content from PubMed Central and publisher web sites.

Feeling overwhelmed?

Journal articles on biology and ecology can seem overwhelming to a non-biologist looking to understand a biological strategy. But there’s a way to get through them and find the secrets you want to learn. Check out this reference for tips on getting the most out of these scientific papers.


Journal articles are considered primary resource materials, and while some are easy to read, others can be quite technical. We’ve provided a guide for how to read a journal article to get the most out of it, even if you’re not a biologist.

Free Journals

The following journals provide free online access to full text articles.

  •  The American Journal of Botany covers research in all areas of plant biology (structure, function, development, diversity, genetics, evolution, systematics), all levels of organization (molecular to ecosystem), and all plant groups and allied organisms (cyanobacteria, algae, fungi, and lichens). It requires a subscription, though authors can pay to make their articles open access.
  • Annals of Botany is an international plant science journal that publishes novel and substantial research papers in all areas of plant science, along with reviews and shorter Botanical Briefings about topical issues. Each issue also features a roundup of plant-based items from the world’s media called “Plant Cuttings.” Several years worth of archived journals are available for free.
  • Biology Letters provides short, highly innovative, cutting-edge research articles across the biological sciences. Content is free one year after the publication date.
  • BIRDNET is an online repository of information about the science of ornithology and about issues of interest to ornithologists. The site is intended to provide information to professional ornithologists and to members of the general public interested in learning more about both the scientific study of birds and the application of information from that study to conservation and other issues affecting birds.
  • Green Chemistry is the home of cutting-edge research on the development of alternative sustainable technologies. You can get free access to full articles with a free registration.
  • The Journal of Comparative Physiology A presents original articles and short reviews that aid in understanding mechanisms of physiology at the organismic, cellular, or molecular levels of organization. Topics include neurobiology, neuroethology, sensory physiology, sensory ecology, physiological basis of behavior, hormonal control of behavior, communication, orientation, locomotion, functional neuroanatomy, and more. It requires a subscription, although authors can opt to make their articles open access.
  • The Journal of Comparative Physiology B: Biochemical, Systemic, and Environmental Physiology covers the comparative physiology of invertebrate and vertebrate animals. Special emphasis is placed on integrative studies that explain mechanisms at the whole-animal, organ, tissue, cellular, and/or molecular levels. Aspects of particular interest include: molecular and endocrine control of metabolism; membrane transport and nutrient absorption; respiration and gas exchange; circulation and body fluids; energy and temperature relations; muscle and exercise physiology; energetics and endocrinology of reproduction; evolutionary aspects of physiology, and more. It requires a subscription, although authors can opt to make their articles open access.
  • The Journal of Experimental Biology covers comparative physiology and integrative biology. This is a good source for strategies. New articles are often free to access for a short time and then require a subscription. Archived articles are usually free.
  • Letters in Applied Microbiology includes research across the breadth of microbiology, including in the following key subject areas: antimicrobials, biodegradation, biotechnology, plant pathology, virology, and more. It requires a subscription, although authors can pay to make their articles open access.
  • Plant Physiology is devoted to physiology, biochemistry, cellular and molecular biology, genetics, biophysics, and environmental biology of plants.
  • PLoS One features a variety of subject areas. Within the PLoS series, PLoS Biology is the best option for strategies, but it’s worth exploring the other subjects. Access to full-text articles is free.
  • Trends in Ecology and Evolution covers new developments and ideas across the full range of ecology and evolutionary biology—from the pure to the applied, and from molecular to global—bringing together research from a wide range of sub-disciplines.

Subscription Journals

The following journals require payment or subscription to access full-text articles.
  • The Annual Review of Microbiology covers microbiology, encompassing bacteria, archaea, viruses, and unicellular eukaryotes.
  • Applied Entomology and Zoology publishes articles concerned with applied entomology, applied zoology, agricultural chemicals, and pest control. Coverage spans a wide range of fields, including molecular biology, environmental science, physiology, ecology, ethology (the science of animal behavior), taxonomy, and toxicology.
  • BioScience gives overviews of current research in biology.
  • Copeia covers fish, reptiles, and amphibians.
  • Flora covers morphology, distribution, and the functional ecology of plants.
  • The Journal of Bionic Engineering covers aspects of bionic science and engineering, including fundamental understandings of animals and plants for bionic engineering. It addresses topics such as structures, composites, morphology, locomotion and behaviors of animals, and physical properties of plants and natural materials, and the applications of such understandings in engineering, technology, and design.
The Journal of Chemical Ecology promotes an ecological understanding of the origin, function, and significance of natural chemicals that mediate interactions within and between organisms.
  • Zoologischer Anzeiger – A Journal of Comparative Zoology is devoted to comparative zoology with a special emphasis on morphology, systematics, biogeography, and evolutionary ecology targeting animal species. The broader aim of the journal is to contribute to our understanding of the organismic world from an evolutionary perspective.
  • Microbial Ecology covers scientific investigations of how microorganisms interact with their environment, with each other, and with their hosts.
  • Nature includes many journals covering specific subjects, so you’ll need to peruse the list of journals to find ones relevant to what you’re looking for. It also has regional websites. It requires a subscription to access full-text articles.
  • Oecologia publishes innovative ecological research of general interest to a broad international audience.

Tip: Accessing Subscription Journals

Sometimes it’s possible to access online journal articles even if the original journal source requires payment or subscription.

  1. Check the departmental websites at the authors’ universities to see if there is a link to a PDF of the article in any of the authors’ lists of publications. Often either the lead author or the last author in the list is the professor or lead researcher at an institution, while other authors might be graduate students or supporting researchers.
  2. Search for the title of the article in Google Scholar. Ignore ones marked as citations, although sometimes articles citing the article you want can lead you to other related articles in someone’s references list.
  3. As a last resort, you can contact the lead author or the publisher for a copy of the paper.

Secondary Literature

“Secondary literature” is a document that relates or discusses information originally presented elsewhere (e.g., in a scientific journal, or ‘primary literature’). Secondary sources can be valuable because they often provide analysis and synthesis of complex information, and can be written in more accessible language.

Science News Services

Science journalists excel at taking complex science and “translating” it into wording that non-biologists can understand. The following science news services find interesting science articles and provide summaries, photos, researchers’ names and affiliations, and sometimes links to the original journal articles. By subscribing to their RSS feeds, you can keep track of new research as it comes in.

  • Nature News & Comment provides access to some research summaries from Nature and other journals, with links to journals; however, access to the various Nature journals requires a subscription.
  • ScienceNews has a good search engine that allows you to narrow your search by specific topics. Scroll down through the topics to Life & Evolution.
  • LiveScience is a science newswire. Although you can select a topic like Animals or Planet Earth, the search engine doesn’t restrict your searches to this. You’ll need more research into any strategies found here.
  • BBC News Science & Environment has a simple search engine that will work with organism names.
  • The Journal of Experimental Biology, also mentioned under Journals, has approximately four articles in each issue written by a science journalist who is good at explaining the science. The section to look at is called Inside JEB.
  • EurekaAlert! lets you focus on a subject, such as biology, to do your search. You can filter your search to get more relevant articles.

Online Textbooks

Print or online textbooks can help you quickly understand terminology or basic biology and are also a good source for biological strategies. Here are some online biology textbooks:

More specific textbooks for categories within biology, such as for insects, invertebrates, ecology, botany, and so on, are harder to find for free online. Many of the free downloads are for books that are quite old, so finding print textbooks at libraries might be the best strategy. Here are a few online ones we’ve found:

Other secondary literature sources

Here are some other secondary literature sources you may find valuable:

  • Whether searching for scientific articles, magazines, or books, a good source is Google Scholar, rather than just Google or some other search engine. Using Google Scholar is also a great way to find citations to other relevant research papers.
  • Google Books is a great way to find books online. Often not all pages of a book are included, but there’s usually enough text for you to get valuable information. Some of the books are recent, and some are quite old. Choose the more recent ones, as researchers are always learning more.
  • ZQ Journal is an online magazine that has interviews and in-depth looks at biomimetic designs that reveal the organism or system strategies behind them. It also includes inspiring images and artwork.
  • McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology Volumes 1-20 is a print book that can help you understand scientific terms.
  • Science & Technology Desk Reference 2 is another print book that can help you understand scientific terms.
  • How Stuff Works has videos, articles, and photos revealing nature’s strategies. Click on Animals, Health, or Science.
  • Natural History has an online magazine from the American Museum of Natural History.
  • National Geographic has a website and online magazine.
  • Scientific American has a website and online magazine.



Museums that sponsor research provide a wealth of information about nature’s strategies. Because their research is first-hand, their information is more reliable than that of other museum and zoo websites. Wikipedia has a page listing natural history museums around the world, not all of which will have research arms. Here are some examples of museums with research departments:

Other websites

Wikipedia is a good source for biological strategies, but you should use it only as a starting point and go to their links for more scientifically accurate information.! – Bioinspiration content curated by Janine Benyus.

iBiology offers open-access free video lectures and other content with leading scientists.


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