The intersection of nature and human invention is a strange place.

At it, we find bizarre-sounding contraptions members of our bipedal species have created to overcome challenges for nature that we’ve also created.

One such invention is the salmon cannon.

Sadly, it is not quite as exciting as it sounds.

However, it is proving to be a fairly useful invention.

The salmon cannon is, in fact, a long, flexible rubbery tube that salmon swim through to get up and over hydroelectric dams. These dams can block their migration paths from the sea to freshwater rivers where they spawn.

First they swim into a gate, and shortly after — unbeknownst to them — vacuum pressure shoots them along inside the misted tube at a rate somewhere between 24 and 35 kilometres per hour. Think of it as a kind of super-fast fish waterslide, or, if you prefer, like the pneumonic tube technology used to shoot mail around big fancy office buildings.

At the end of the ride, the salmon are shot back out into the water to continue swimming on their merry way.

There is a more traditional way of helping salmon along their migration paths and around obstacles. The fish ladder is really a series of pools that rise incrementally. Salmon, which are excellent hoppers, jump from pool to pool and eventually make their way over the obstacle.

However, some obstacles are simply too large for fish ladders to be feasible solutions.
After lots of tests with frozen fish, the salmon cannon is being piloted with real, live fish at one such large obstacle: the Roza Dam in Washington’s Yakima River.

The salmon cannon comes to us via Whooshh Innovations, the aptly-named Bellevue-based engineering firm behind the technology that can pick and pack fruit without bruising it.

Sometimes when technological innovations meet nature, they’re not serving a functional purpose per se, but have more of an esthetic value.

While 3-D printing can be incredibly useful, especially when it comes to prosthestics, dentistry and surgery, it is also the medium of choice for a new wave of artists.

Japanese artist Aki Inomata has crafted tiny shelters for hermit crabs from clear plastic topped with miniature replicas of iconic landmarks, including the New York City skyline, a Thai Buddhist temple and Dutch windmills.

I don’t know how practical these fancy shells are for the crabs in their everyday hermit lives, but they are really cool to look at.

And why shouldn’t a hermit crab look fabulous if it chooses the clear plastic shell over the mainstream seashell all the other guys have? Bo-ring.

In the vast academic disciplines focusing on humanity’s impact on the natural world, there are practical solutions and graceful solutions — but they are all based on research. Mountains and mountains of research.

One such study in those ranges of literature perhaps teaches us more about ourselves by comparing us to our closest evolutionary cousins: bonobos.

Researchers from the University of Pisa in Italy were interested in the contagiousness of yawning, and whether “catching” a yawn from someone else is something we’ve evolved to do.

They analyzed 1,375 yawn events from 33 adult humans in various social situations (at work, during meals, et cetera) and watched how many times and how quickly a person responded to another’s yawn.

They compared that data with 2,123 yawn events from 16 adult bonobos in Dutch and German zoos.

What they found is the primates did “catch” other bonobos’ yawns, but the big difference between the human reaction and the bonobo reaction was the presence of an empathic relationship.

The groups responded comparably when the “yawner” was not a friend or relative, but humans reacted more quickly and more often when it was a friend or relative who yawned.

The researchers concluded their findings could be linked to others about imitative, unconscious responses in social situations, such as mimicking facial expressions, and the evolutionary role that might have played in our ability to survive and thrive.

I am not fully convinced of the usefulness of this particular study, but when it comes to human inventions intervening in the natural world, the salmon cannon holds water.