Steering as a Boxfish

A yellow boxfish.

Coral reefs are full of odd-looking denizens, but one of the funniest-looking ones must be the boxfish. This family of fish lives up to its name; their bodies feature an angular, bony carapace that helps protect them. But you don’t have to be a fluid dynamicist to wonder how in the world they swim with that kind of shape.

There’s actually disagreement in scientific circles as to whether the basic shape of a boxfish is stabilizing or destabilizing, in other words, whether the fish’s body shape will try to automatically turn or roll when flow moves past. A new study focuses instead on the role the fish’s tail fin serves. Through experiments (on a fish model) and simulations, the researchers showed that boxfish rely on their tail fins both as rudders and course-stabilizers.

Living around coral reefs means that boxfish need to be highly maneuverable, and this research indicates that the fish’s body shape, combined with the stabilizing power of its tail, are key to its ability to quickly and easily turn in any direction. (Image credits: boxfish – D. Seddon, simulation – P. Boute et al.; research credit: P. Boute et al.; via NYTimes; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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