Research

The Swimming of a Dead Fish

View from below a tank in which a (dead) fish swims upstream behind an obstacle

When I was a child, my father would take me trout fishing, and I spent hours marveling from the riverbank at the trouts’ ability to, seemingly effortlessly, hold their position in the fast-moving water. As it turns out, those trout really were swimming effortlessly, in a manner demonstrated above. The fish you see here swimming behind the obstacle is dead. There’s nothing powering it, except the energy its flexible body can extract from the flow around it.

The obstacle sheds a wake of alternating vortices into the flow, and when the fish is properly positioned in that wake, the vortices themselves flex the fish’s body such that its head and its tail point in different directions. Under just the right conditions, there’s actually a resonance between the vortices and the fish’s body that generates enough thrust to overcome the fish’s drag. This means the fish can actually swim upstream without expending any energy of its own! The researchers came across this entirely by accident, and one of the questions that remains is how the trout is able to sense its surroundings well enough to intentionally take advantage of the effect. (Image and research credit: D. Beal et al.; via PhysicsBuzz; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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