Grebe Rushing Physics

As capable a water-runner as the common basilisk is, the western and Clark’s grebe is even more impressive. Not only do these birds weigh up to three times as much as an adult basilisk, but they start their water-walking from inside the water, which requires overcoming much more hydrodynamic force.

Like the lizards, grebes must slap the water with their feet to generate upward forces capable of supporting their weight above water. The birds take as many as 20 steps a second – an incredible and unmatched stride rate for a creature their size. Their feet impact the water at up at 4.5 m/s, which generates an impulse equivalent to 30-55% of the grebe’s weight. The rest of the necessary impulse comes from the stroke phase, where the bird pushes its foot down against the water.

When retracting its foot, the grebe extracts the foot with a sideways motion through the water – unlike the basilisk which pulls its foot out through the air cavity its stroke created. In order to reduce drag, the grebe’s foot collapses into a more streamlined shape as it gets pulled from the water, letting the bird set up for the next step. (Image/video credit: B. Struck, source; research credit: G. Clifton et al.)

This week FYFD is exploring the physics of walking on water, all leading up to a special webcast on March 5th with guests from The Splash Lab. The live webcast will be open to all FYFD patrons, so be sure to sign up if you want to tune in.

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