The hydrodynamics of eel swimming: I. Wake structure. Academic Article uri icon


  • Eels undulate a larger portion of their bodies while swimming than many other fishes, but the hydrodynamic consequences of this swimming mode are poorly understood. In this study, we examine in detail the hydrodynamics of American eels (Anguilla rostrata) swimming steadily at 1.4 L s(-1) and compare them with previous results from other fishes. We performed high-resolution particle image velocimetry (PIV) to quantify the wake structure, measure the swimming efficiency, and force and power output. The wake consists of jets of fluid that point almost directly laterally, separated by an unstable shear layer that rolls up into two or more vortices over time. Previously, the wake of swimming eels was hypothesized to consist of unlinked vortex rings, resulting from a phase offset between vorticity distributed along the body and vorticity shed at the tail. Our high-resolution flow data suggest that the body anterior to the tail tip produces relatively low vorticity, and instead the wake structure results from the instability of the shear layers separating the lateral jets, reflecting pulses of high vorticity shed at the tail tip. We compare the wake structure to large-amplitude elongated body theory and to a previous computational fluid dynamic model and note several discrepancies between the models and the measured values. The wake of steadily swimming eels differs substantially in structure from the wake of previously studied carangiform fishes in that it lacks any significant downstream flow, previously interpreted as signifying thrust. We infer that the lack of downstream flow results from a spatial and temporal balance of momentum removal (drag) and thrust generated along the body, due to the relatively uniform shape of eels. Carangiform swimmers typically have a narrow caudal peduncle, which probably allows them to separate thrust from drag both spatially and temporally. Eels seem to lack this separation, which may explain why they produce a wake with little downstream momentum while carangiform swimmers produce a wake with a clear thrust signature.

publication date

  • May 2004