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Flippers provide lift, reduce drag: humpback whale

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Humpback whale flipper / Giles Breton / LicenseCopyright - All Rights Reserved

The flippers of the humpback whale channel flow and increase aerodynamic efficiency due to tubercles or bumps.


Flippers on humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) have non-smooth leading edges, yet demonstrate superior fluid dynamics to the characteristically smooth leading edges of our wings, turbines and other kinds of blades. Despite being 40-50 feet long and weighing nearly 80,000 pounds, humpback whales swim in circles tight enough to produce nets of bubbles only five feet across, which corral their shrimp-like prey. The whale’s surprising dexterity is due primarily to its non-conventional flippers, which have large, irregular looking bumps called tubercles across their leading edges. Whereas sheets of water flowing over smooth flippers break up into myriad turbulent vortices as they cross the flipper, sheets of water passing between a humpback’s tubercles maintain even channels of fast-moving water, allowing humpbacks to keep their “grip” on the water at sharper angles and turn tighter corners, even at low speeds.

Wind tunnel tests of model humpback flippers with and without leading-edge tubercles have demonstrated the fluid dynamic improvements tubercles make, such as a staggering 32% reduction in drag, 8% improvement in lift, and a 40% increase in angle of attack over smooth flippers before stalling. A company called WhalePower is applying these lessons to the design of wind turbines and fans of all sorts – industrial ceiling fans and other HVAC systems, computer fans, etc. – to improve their efficiency, safety, and cost-effectiveness.

"The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is reported to use its elongate pectoral flippers during swimming maneuvers. The morphology of the flipper from a 9.02-m whale was evaluated with regard to this hydrodynamic function. The flipper had a wing-like, high aspect ratio plan- form. Rounded tubercles were regularly interspersed along the flipper's leading edge. The flipper was cut into 71 2.5-cm cross-sections and photographed. Except for sections near the distal tip, flipper sections were symmetrical with no camber. Flipper sections had a blunt, rounded leading edge and a highly tapered trailing edge. Placement of the maximum thickness placement for each cross-section varied from 49% of chord at the tip to 19% at mid-span. Section thickness ratio averaged 0.23 with a range of 0.20-0.28. The humpback whale flipper had a cross-sectional design typical of manufactured aerodynamic foils for lift generation. The morphology and placement of leading edge tubercles suggest that they function as enhanced lift devices to control flow over the flipper and maintain lift at high angles of attack. The morphology of the humpback whale flipper suggests that it is adapted for high maneuverability associated with the whale's unique feeding behavior." (Fish and Battle 1995:51)

"The humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae is exceptional among the baleen whales in its ability to undertake acrobatic underwater maneuvers to catch prey. In order to execute these banking and turning maneuvers, humpback whales utilize extremely mobile flippers. The humpback whale flipper is unique because of the presence of large protuberances or tubercles located on the leading edge which gives this surface a scalloped appearance. We show, through wind tunnel measurements, that the addition of leading-edge tubercles to a scale model of an idealized humpback whale flipper delays the stall angle by approximately 40%, while increasing lift and decreasing drag." (Miklosovic et al. 2004:L39)

Watch Video of Whales' Hunting Technique
About the inspiring organism
Med_humpback_whale_underwater_shot humpback whale
Megaptera novaeangliae (Borowski, 1781)
Common name: Humpback whale

Habitat(s): Marine Neritic
Learn more at
Some organism data provided by: ITIS: The Integrated Taxonomic Information System
Organism/taxonomy data provided by:
Species 2000 & ITIS Catalogue of Life: 2008 Annual Checklist

Threat Categories LONG_LC IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern

Bioinspired products and application ideas

Application Ideas: More efficient wind turbines, hydroelectric turbines, ceiling fans, airplane wings, underwater vehicles, boat rudder...

Industrial Sector(s) interested in this strategy: Energy, Manufacturing, Aeronautics, Naval Architecture

Liquid Life Laboratory
Frank E. Fish
Department of Biology, West Chester University
Fish, F. E.; Battle, J. M. 1995. Hydrodynamic design of the humpback whale flipper. J Morphol. 225(1): 51-60.
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Miklosovic, D. S.; Murray, M. M.; Howle, L. E.; Fish, F. E. 2004. Leading-edge tubercles delay stall on humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) flippers. PHYSICS OF FLUIDS. 16(5):
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Fish FE; Weber PW; Murray MM; Howle LE. 2011. The tubercles on humpback whales’ flippers: application of bio-inspired technology. Integrative and Comparative Biology. 51(1): 203-213.
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This is the best website ever known to man!!!!!!!!! This idea is absolutely genius!!!!!!!! Go science! Nature is such an amazing part of life and I am so glad that I am a part of a beautiful world. At night I go outside and envy mother nature and her ability to make such a beautiful place. Last week I went camping and was lost on the wonders of our world. This is such an amazing idea, and I hope that if i ever have a good reason to use it, i will. I want the world to know how important nature is. It keeps us alive. Nature=Life.

over 7 years ago
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