Faculty Spotlight


Malcolm Gordon

I study the biomechanics and hydrodynamics of how fishes and other aquatic animals swim. This involves a surprisingly complex set of issues. Actively swimming fishes, whales, etc., are mostly streamlined, but streamlining alone does not explain the great variety of body shapes and sizes in relation to swimming speeds and the efficiencies with which these animals convert energy into motion. Swimming animals confront all sorts of challenges, including how to navigate in and move stably through turbulent waters. We have been studying these and other questions using anatomically exact models of specific fishes (boxfishes). We also film real fishes swimming in raceways to check our models. From the models we discovered a series of passive mechanisms arising from the shapes of boxfishes that stabilize their swimming trajectories. However, I am very excited about our latest discovery: boxfish have a set of important, but previously unrecognized, hydrodynamic mechanisms that stabilize their swimming even in very turbulent waters. It appears likely that similar mechanisms, also previously unrecognized, are used by many other kinds of fishes and aquatic animals as well. Our work on boxfish swimming has had some unexpected engineering spinoffs. The US Navy has developed a new generation of small autonomous underwater vehicles that incorporate important features of boxfish hydrodynamics that we discovered. The automobile industry, led initially by Mercedes Benz in Europe, has also applied boxfish design principles to reduce aerodynamic drag of some newer models of cars. This is a case of engineering bioinspired design and "biomimicry."

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