Jessica Crabtree

Patterns in Nature: Fractals

by on Sep.22, 2010, under JOURNAL: Nature, art, cultural perspectives

A fractal is an extremely irregular geometric form, representing complex mathematical functions, that is infinitely self-replicating.

The term was coined by Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975, based on the fact that no matter how many times you “fracture” a fractal shape, you can always break it down to smaller, exact copies of itself. The pattern of the original shape repeats itself endlessly on an ever-smaller scale (somewhat like a family tree).

Because fractal patterns are so complex, it wasn’t until the 20th century that modern math and science could figure them out. But surprisingly, they seem to have been a familiar motif all over the ancient world – because fractals are one of the most fundamental patterns of nature.

It’s hard to look around and not see a fractal, if you know what to look for. Some examples of natural fractals are familiar to us; others are so bizarre, they will blow your mind!

See some amazing photos of fractals in nature >


Fluids such as water tend to move in fractal patterns. The branching-out of the flow into smaller and smaller streams creates this kind of fractal motion.

Cloud formations known as Von Karman vortices, as seen from space:


One of the more famous examples of fractals in Romanesco broccoli:

Cross-section of a red cabbage

The cells inside the woody stalk of a plant

Who knew mold spores could make a petri dish look like a Persian tapestry! This one reminds me of a peacock’s fan – which by the way is also a fractal pattern.

Read more:

(If you don’t mind the ads this page has some particularly good examples)

Fractal Foundation – more photos of fractal patterns in nature

Wikipedia – article on Fractals

PBS NOVA: Hunting the Hidden Dimension – history of the discovery and exploration of fractals. Watch the entire documentary online or use the interactive features

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About Me

I am a freelance artist living in Arkansas, US, specializing in historical portraits of American Indians. I blog about the portrayal and influence of Native Americans in art, history, and the media.

I am fascinated by history and world cultures, ancient and modern, and particularly indigenous peoples. My other interests include wildlife ecology, environmental issues & sustainability, journalism, photography, web design & development. I enjoy music and reading (see my book list here).

You can see some of my pastel work, and my drawings in charcoal and graphite, by visiting my online Gallery.