An un-momentous start to life: Can hydrodynamics explain why fish larvae change swimming style?

Ulrike K. Müller*, Johan L. van Leeuwen, Stephan van Duin, Hao Liu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

4 Citations (Scopus)


In this study, we explore mechanical constraints on the swimming performance of zebrafish larvae (Danio rerio) that might explain why larvae switch from sustained swimming to the more efficient burst & coast as they grow. Two hypotheses have been proposed to explain why young fish larvae perform poorly at burst & coast. First, their initial momentum might be low; second, their drag coefficient might be high. To test the two hypotheses, this study makes a quantitative comparison between experimental observations of swimming fish larvae and a CFD model of a self-propelled fish. The study focuses on larvae of the crucial age and size range in which zebrafish switch swimming style. Our studies show that hatchlings perform poorly not only because they cannot accelerate to a high initial coasting speed and hence do not gain enough initial momentum. But they also suffer higher decelerations while coasting due to a high drag coefficient. Overall, the fivefold difference in coasting distance between hatchlings and older larvae corresponds closely to a threefold difference in the time constant of the speed decay and a threefold difference in initial momentum. Our data also show that swimming speed does not decay exponentially, as predicted by the drag-speed relationship in the viscous flow regime, but hyperbolically, due to flow phenomena developing in the boundary layer during the coast.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-53
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Biomechanical Science and Engineering
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 10 Mar 2009


  • Burst and coast
  • Danio Rerio
  • Fish larvae
  • Intermittent swimming
  • Viscous flow regime
  • Zebrafish


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