Date: October 5, 2016
Source: Virginia Tech
To surprise their prey, some species of seabirds dive into the water at speeds greater than 50 miles per hour. A human diver entering the water that fast would likely sustain serious injuries, but birds, such as gannets and boobies, pull off these dives safely in spite of their slender necks.
New research from Virginia Tech helps explain how the birds manage these high-speed dives.
"We were interested in what happens when objects plunge into water, so we looked for examples in nature; the gannets are incredible," said Sunny Jung, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering and an expert in fluid biomechanics; he has also studied dogs' unusual drinking technique and how shrimp use microscopic bubbles to hunt.
In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Jung and his coworkers investigate the biomechanics of gannets' dives. They found that the birds' head shape, neck length and musculature, and diving speeds work in concert to ensure that the force of the water doesn't buckle their slim necks.
Previous studies of the diving birds have focused on ecological aspects of this hunting behavior, called "plunge diving." Jung's is the first paper to explore the underlying physics and biomechanical engineering that allow the birds to plunge beneath the water without injury.
To analyze the bird's body shape and neck musculature, the team used a salvaged gannet provided by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. They also created 3-D printed replicas of gannet skulls from the collection at the Smithsonian Institution, which helped them measure the forces on the skull as it enters the water.
The primary force acting on the gannet's head as it plunges beneath the water is drag, which increases with speed. To analyze what other parameters affect the force the bird experiences, the researchers created a simplified model from a 3-D printed cone on a flexible rubber "neck," and plunged this system into a basin of water, varying the cone angle, neck length, and impact speed. High-speed video showed whether the neck buckled.