Startling trick turns jellyfish into super swimmers

"It confounds all our assumptions," says John Dabiri. "But our experiments show that jellyfish and lampreys actually suck water toward themselves to move forward instead of pushing against the water behind them, as had been previously supposed." (Credit: Ross G. Strachan/Flickr)

Millions of years ago, jellyfish were already swimming the oceans with the same pulsing motions that use today.

Now researchers have discovered a startling truth about how jellyfish and lampreys, another ancient species that undulate like eels, move through the water with unmatched efficiency.

video of a swimming jellyfish
Video of a swimming moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) showing the visualized fluid vectors (colored arrows) and vorticity (spin) associated with the fluid as result of the swimming motion. Colors indicate direction of spin with blue being clockwise and red representing counterclockwise fluid rotation generated by the animal as it swims. Playback is approximately 1/5 of real time. Brad Gemmell, (Credit: University of Southern Florida)
lamprey swimming
Video of a lamprey eel (black outline) swimming in a water tank. Colors indicate the low-pressure suction forces (blue) and high-pressure pushing forces (red) generated by the animal as it swims. Colorbar indicates pressure in units of Pascals (Newtons per square meter). Playback is approximately 1/60 of real time. (Credit: John Dabiri, Stanford Engineering)

Researchers say the findings could spur new designs for energy-efficient underwater craft.

“It confounds all our assumptions,” says John Dabiri, professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering at Stanford University. “But our experiments show that jellyfish and lampreys actually suck water toward themselves to move forward instead of pushing against the water behind them, as had been previously supposed.”

Researchers have spent years studying the propulsion systems of jellyfish and eel-like lampreys. Both animals long ago evolved into efficient swimmers. Each minimal pulsing or undulating movement helps them cover a significant distance.

Studying nature for clues to improve human-made technologies is part of a field called biomimetics, and researchers originally set out looking for insights to improve the design of submarines and ships.

[Jellyfish with tiny jets can turn on a dime]

About three years ago, Dabiri began to suspect that scientists fundamentally misunderstood underwater propulsion, that moving forward like nature’s best swimmers was far more complicated than spinning a propeller or kicking one’s feet to push off against the water behind.

Instead, as a lamprey slithers along, it creates a pocket of low-pressure water inside each bend of its body. As the water ahead of the lamprey races into this low-pressure bend, the flow of that water pulls the lamprey forward. Jellyfish propulsion is similar. As the jelly’s umbrella-shaped plume collapses, water ahead of the animal is pulled aft, propelling the jellyfish forward.

260-year-old math problem

To make their case, researchers designed an experiment that enabled them to use a 260-year-old equation that helps scientists to explain the theoretical behavior of fluids around solid objects, such as swimming animals.

This is tricky because solids and fluids are so different.

“Interactions between solid objects are usually straightforward, like two billiard balls bouncing off each other, and therefore you can calculate the forces without much difficulty,” Dabiri says. “But in a fluid every molecule is like a billiard ball and they are practically innumerable. There isn’t a simple way to calculate all those interactions.”

In 1755, mathematician Leonard Euler created an equation to describe fluid motion. It boiled down to the interplay of three variables: time, the rate of flow, and the pressure exerted by each molecule of the fluid on its neighbors. Time and flow were easy to measure even then, but pressure is much more difficult to gauge, especially as an animal swims through the fluid.

So researchers created an experimental system that allowed them to accurately approximate this pressure variable.

“Everyone appreciates that Euler’s equation can effectively describe the fluid motion, but extracting the pressure from the equation in real-world experiments has been a longstanding challenge,” Dabiri says.

[2 different sea creatures evolved to swim like this]

They started with a rectangle acrylic tank about 1 foot wide, 4 feet long and 6 inches deep. In the water floated millions of tiny hollow glass beads that served as proxies for water molecules. They positioned two lasers opposite each other on the thin sides of the rectangle, with a high-speed digital camera set alongside each laser.

As small jellyfish and lampreys swam through the tank, their motions perturbed the glass beads, whose positions were tracked by the lasers and recorded by the digital cameras in fractions of a second. The experiment then became an exercise in computation.

(Credit: *MandyJ*/Flickr)

Time and flow could be precisely measured for the beads, at each moment. Making thousands upon thousands of calculations, the team used these two precise variables to solve for the third, elusive variable of pressure. They fed these results into a computer that transformed the mountain of data into a visual representation of the pressure forces at play.

From this image, it became clear that the low-pressure pockets created on the inside edge of each undulating animal movement were the dominant driver of propulsion, by pulling water toward the animal to move it forward.

As an added proof, the researchers compared two batches of lampreys of the same species. The control batch moved in natural, undulating fashion. The experimental batch were modified so that only their tail end flicked, using a less efficient kicking motion, not unlike human swimmers.

“The body undulations of the normal lampreys set them apart as much better swimmers than you and me,” Dabiri says. “Human swimmers generate high pressure instead of suction. That’s good enough to get you across the pool, but requires much more energy than the suction action of lampreys and jellyfish.”

Underwater vehicles

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the new biomimetic understanding could provide the foundation for significant advances in underwater vehicle design.

“For nearly 100 years, it has been assumed that mimicking natural swimming meant finding ways to generate high pressures to push water backward for thrust,” Dabiri says. “Now we realize we’ve had it backward, and so the search is on for ways to generate low-pressure suction to achieve more efficient underwater propulsion.”

The new findings show the mechanism selected by evolution to optimize distance-for-effort in underwater animals, says Sean Colin of Roger Williams University.

“Animals that move in fluids almost invariably use flexible, rather than rigid, propulsive structures. This work opens the door to understanding why evolution has converged upon particular bending patterns.”

Researchers from the University of South Florida and Providence College are coauthors of the study.

Source: Stanford University