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Theo Jansen and the Beachanimals: art or science?

By Edited Sep 8, 2016 0 0


All known living creatures on our planet are made out of proteins. Theo Jansen tries to enhance the diversity in nature by using different building blocks for his beach animals. They are for the largest part built with plastics. The beach animals are going through an evolution, which he thinks is very similar to the evolution of other animals and plants in the world. Theo Jansen is the deity who started this evolution and who is still guiding it. The animals in this evolution don't need food and a metabolism like protein-based ones, instead they harvest the energy of the wind. They can use this energy to move around on the beach. The animals have to avoid the sea at all times because they could drown in it. Theo has given it some thought to develop animals who could also survive in the water, but he abandoned those plans. Reproduction and selection are essential conditions for calling the development process an evolution. Theo makes designs using different proportions of the 'bones' (plastic tubes). Next, he checks which design can live most efficiently in the animals habitat: the beach. In this selection process Theo and his animals aided by a computer which can calculate in advance how a design will function. The computer selects some designs which it identifies as having the most (energy) efficient designs. The computer calculates other variations by slightly altering the proportions of the selected designs.

In the beginning...

The first beach animals weren't self-reliant at all. People pushed them to get their legs moving by the wind. During this first phase of development Theo was mainly experimenting with different materials like wooden palettes, yellow electrical conduits, steel, silicon's, ... Electrical conduits became Theo's favorite material for building the animals. They are pretty strong and durable, are low weight and not expensive. An important milestone was developing the 'legs'. Each leg consists of twelve tubes, all of which differ in length. Theo calls the lengths of the tubes of the legs the 'sacred numbers'. It are mainly these twelve numbers which the computer processes to check how the movement is influenced - and optimized - by slight changes to these numbers. Being God is easier with a computer. A remarkable feature of the beach animals is that the 'hips' don't move up and down during movement. Theo thinks this is an improvement compared to the design of most protein based animals. Without moving the hips when walking, less energy is wasted.

The evolution at this time

Since a couple of years the evolution has brought the animals into the 'vaporum-era'. The artist calls it vaporum because the animals started producing sounds like steam engines ever since they have found a way to harvest the wind, and save it in their 'windstomachs' for later use. The energy in the windstomachs can power muscles, neurons and other bodies. A small - nonexclusive - summary of some bodies in this era:

The windstomach

The energy of the wind is saved in PET bottles in the form of pressure. This advancement was a great step in making the animals more self-reliant: even when there is no wind, the animals can move around using their stored energy. The energy can also be used even if there is enough wind to move around; it can provide the power for other bodies.

The muscles

By combining a thick tube, a slimmer tube and rubber seals: the energy is used to extend or shorten muscles. With flexible tubing the energy in the stomach can be transported to every muscle in the animal.

The neurons

The neurons are built using a series of PET bottles combined with muscles. These cells are the basis for what will - in the future - become the brains of the animals. The neurons can count in a binary way: an extended muscle which is regarded as 'one', a shortened muscle represents 'zero'. This way they will be able to 'remember' things. A special kind of nerve ('leugenaar' or liar in English) kan be used to detect water. It has a tube which dangles right above the beach. If the animal gets to close to the dangerous sea, the liar will be blocked by the water. This way the animal can remember where is located. It can turn around and seek safer ground on the beach or in the dunes.

The anchor

The wind gives the beach animals their energy, but can also be a real danger. If there's a storm coming the 'Animaris Arena' (every animal gets a Latin name, following biological tradition) unrolls a trunk. It then tries to hammer a bar into the beach, so it's anchored and strong winds can't blow it  in to the sea, thus eliminating one of the dangers during a storm.

Animaris Speculata

In fact this small beach animal isn't an body, but I consider it like one because it will stay connected to its mother for his entire lifespan. He works for his mother like a scout who is exploring the terrain. If it, for example, notices the sand is to dry making moving through it a waste of energy, it alerts his mother. This larger animal can then pull out the Speculata if it had already gotten stuck in the dry sand, and together they can search a new direction to move.

The future

Eventually these animals will live in herds on the beaches of The Netherlands. As they walk across them they grab a little bit of sand from the beach and carry it to the dunes, where they drop it. After months or years this would impact the landscape greatly: by reinforcing the dunes, the animals help to protect the Dutch coast against the advancing sea.

Theo's life purpose is to keep on helping the evolution as long as he can. Hopefully until the animals have evolved into self reliant creatures. It would be awesome if they become capable of reproducing themselves using open source 3D printers and plastic waste found on the shore. This way the 'Strandbeesten' also make the shore cleaner.



This concept is very difficult to explain merely in words. The beauty is easier to find in videos of the animals. In this The project website.

A video in which Theo explains his concept, with a lot more shots of walking 'Strandbeesten' (mostly in Dutch, some parts in English).



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