Biofluiddynamic scaling of flapping, spinning and translating fins and wings

D. Lentink, M.H. Dickinson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

112 Citations (Scopus)


Organisms that swim or fly with fins or wings physically interact with the surrounding water and air. The interactions are governed by the morphology and kinematics of the locomotory system that form boundary conditions to the Navier–Stokes (NS) equations. These equations represent Newton's law of motion for the fluid surrounding the organism. Several dimensionless numbers, such as the Reynolds number and Strouhal number, measure the influence of morphology and kinematics on the fluid dynamics of swimming and flight. There exists, however, no coherent theoretical framework that shows how such dimensionless numbers of organisms are linked to the NS equation. Here we present an integrated approach to scale the biological fluid dynamics of a wing that flaps, spins or translates. Both the morphology and kinematics of the locomotory system are coupled to the NS equation through which we find dimensionless numbers that represent rotational accelerations in the flow due to wing kinematics and morphology. The three corresponding dimensionless numbers are (1) the angular acceleration number, (2) the centripetal acceleration number, and (3) the Rossby number, which measures Coriolis acceleration. These dimensionless numbers consist of length scale ratios, which facilitate their geometric interpretation. This approach gives fundamental insight into the physical mechanisms that explain the differences in performance among flapping, spinning and translating wings. Although we derived this new framework for the special case of a model fly wing, the method is general enough to make it applicable to other organisms that fly or swim using wings or fins
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2691-2704
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number16
Publication statusPublished - 2009


  • low reynolds-numbers
  • unsteady aerodynamic performance
  • insect flight
  • revolving wings
  • hovering flight
  • lift
  • animals
  • vortex
  • drosophila
  • mechanism

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