Constructed from plastic PVC tubing, zip ties, and string, Theo Jansen's strandbeests are the ultimate in humble down-home DIY. But they come to life with animal grace the second they begin to move: Wings flap. Tubular muscles extend. Knobby knees flex. Feet lift. Wind is gulped and stored for energy.

The beach animals’ simple parts belie their complex construction and behaviors. Mechanical nerves trigger reflexes that border on thought. Always, survival is the goal. One beest detects an incoming tide, turns, and beats a retreat to higher ground. Another, sensing the high winds of a storm, pounds an anchor into the sand to keep itself from blowing away.

The product of a 25-year lineage of ongoing evolution, each species of strandbeest bears a Latin name reflective of its unique character and adaptations. Animaris Currens Vaporis, or “walking steam animal,” puffs like a steam engine. Animaris Vermiculus, or “worm animal,” wriggles like its namesake.

Often, newer species retain the successful anatomical features of their predecessors and shed what fails to serve. In this way, innovations in form, tools, and technique—the haphazard lessons of sheer trial and error—shape the strandbeests over time.

Physicist-turned-artist Jansen has been creating strandbeests since 1990. Iteratively designed and intricately assembled, Jansen’s self-propelled creatures have evolved over the years, becoming increasingly complex and lifelike, with specialized adaptations to help them survive in their seaside environment.

On tour for the first time in North America, the exhibition is illuminated by artist sketches, immersive video, live demonstrations, and the lyrical photography of Lena Herzog, who spent more than seven years documenting the strandbeests’ evolution.

Text from the Exploratorium.