Breaking the Wave Speed Limit

Whirligig beetles are small surface swimming insects. As they race across the water surface, they create both visible and unnoticeable waves on the water. These waves are the result of both surface tension and gravity. Typically, it’s the wavelength of the gravity waves that limit a swimmer or boat’s speed. When the wavelength of the gravity waves a swimmer creates meets the size of the swimmer, the waves generated ahead of the swimmer start to reinforce the waves forming at the back of the swimmer. This traps the swimmer (or boat) in a trough between its bow and stern waves and limits the max speed of the swimmer since overcoming this critical hull speed requires excessive amounts of power.

The tiny whirligig beetle overcomes this natural speed limit cleverly. It is smaller than the shortest possible gravity wave in water. Thus, it can never be trapped between its bow and stern waves! This allows the tiny swimmer to zip across the water’s surface at speeds above 0.5 m/s. That’s over 30 beetle body lengths per second! (Image credit: H. L. Drake, source; research credit: V. Tucker; submitted by Marc A.)

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