A hydrodynamically active flipper-stroke in humpback whales

16 Oct 2019

A central paradigm of aquatic locomotion is that cetaceans use fluke strokes to power their swimming while relying on lift and torque generated by the flippers to perform maneuvers such as rolls, pitch changes and turns [1]. Compared to other cetaceans, humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have disproportionately large flippers with added structural features to aid in hydrodynamic performance [2,3]. Humpbacks use acrobatic lunging maneuvers to attack dense aggregations of krill or small fish, and their large flippers are thought to increase their maneuverability and thus their ability to capture prey. Immediately before opening their mouths, humpbacks will often rapidly move their flippers, and it has been hypothesized that this movement is used to corral prey [4,5] or to generate an upward pitching moment to counteract the torque caused by rapid water engulfment [6]. Here, we demonstrate an additional function for the rapid flipper movement during lunge feeding: the flippers are flapped using a complex, hydrodynamically active stroke to generate lift and increase propulsive thrust. We estimate that humpback flipper-strokes are capable of producing large forward oriented forces, which may be used to enhance lunge feeding performance. This behavior is the first observation of a lift-generating flipper-stroke for propulsion cetaceans and provides an additional function for the uniquely shaped humpback whale flipper.