Research

Swimming Together

A dense, disordered school of silver fish.

Scientists have long pondered the possibilities of hydrodynamic benefits to the ways fish school. But most analyses of schooling have assumed a fixed spacing that’s far more orderly than what we observe in nature. In this experiment, researchers instead used a pair of robotic swimmers (essentially hydrofoils) to explore a range of swimming formations. What they found was a map of places where a second swimmer could easily “lock in” to a position relative to the leader and have their positioning stabilized by interactions with the leader’s wake (lower image). Interestingly, the beneficial regions extend much further downstream for fish positioned diagonally to the leader than they do for one directly following. With such a wide range of easily-stabilized following positions, it’s no wonder that schools of fish are amorphous instead of strictly crystalline! (Image credit: top – S. Pena Lambarri, map – J. Newbolt et al.; research credit: J. Newbolt et al.)

The shaded areas of this map represent areas where a second swimmer can passively "lock-in" relative to the leader's position, shown in gray. This data is based on tests with robotic swimmers.
The shaded areas of this map represent areas where a second swimmer can passively “lock-in” relative to the leader’s position, shown in gray. This data is based on tests with robotic swimmers.
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