Optimal Swimming

What do trout, sharks, and whales have in common? All are fast swimmers and share remarkable similarities in their swimming dynamics despite different sizes, shapes, and environments. A new study analyzing aquatic locomotion examines the characteristics of these swimmers. The researchers found that a typical parameter for studying swimming fish – the Strouhal number, which relates swimming speed, body length, and tail-beat frequency – only tells part of the story. When cruising at minimum power input, a fish cannot choose its Strouhal number – that characteristic is completely determined by the fish’s shape, which determines its drag.

Instead, researchers found that a second additional number – the ratio of the tail-beat amplitude to the body length – was also needed to describe optimal swimming. Taken together, their model predicts that optimal swimming performance lies within a narrow range of the two numbers. And when the researchers examined cruising behaviors of a diverse variety of fish and whales, they found that they did indeed swim in the ranges predicted by the model. Now that we better understand characteristics of efficient swimming, engineers can use the model to guide designs of new biologically-inspired robot swimmers.   (Image credit: N. Sharp, source; research credit: M. Saadat et al.)

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