The speedy shortfin mako shark has a secret weapon to fight drag: bristling denticles that line its fins and tail. Denticles are tiny, anvil-shaped enamel scales on the mako’s skin. In the photo above, each one is about 100 microns across. Under normal conditions, with flow moving over the shark from nose to tail, the denticles lie flat, providing no interference.
But when sudden changes in flow near the shark’s skin cause water to begin moving in the opposite direction, the denticles flare up. Their rise interferes with the reversed flow, trapping it in small eddies beneath each denticle. Since that flow reversal is a precursor to the flow separating from the shark’s body, the bristling effectively cuts off flow separation before it can begin. The result is much less separation and much lower drag. Once the flow stops trying to move upstream, the denticles settle back into their original place. (Image credit: mako shark – jidanchaomian, denticles – J. Oeffner and G. Lauder, illustration – A. Lang, bristling – A. Lang et al.; research credit: A. Lang and A. Lang et al.; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)