Flow patterns of larval fish: undulatory swimming in the intermediate flow regime

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Fish larvae, like many adult fish, swim by undulating their body. However, their body size and swimming speeds put them in the intermediate flow regime, where viscous and inertial forces both play an important role in the interaction between fish and water. To study the influence of the relatively high viscous forces compared with adult fish, we mapped the flow around swimming zebrafish (Danio rerio) larvae using two-dimensional digital particle image velocimetry (2D-DPIV) in the horizontal and transverse plane of the fish. Fish larvae initiate a swimming bout by bending their body into a C shape. During this initial tail-beat cycle, larvae shed two vortex pairs in the horizontal plane of their wake, one during the preparatory and one during the subsequent propulsive stroke. When they swim `cyclically' (mean swimming speed does not change significantly between tail beats), fish larvae generate a wide drag wake along their head and anterior body. The flow along the posterior body is dominated by the undulating body movements that cause jet flows into the concave bends of the body wave. Patches of elevated vorticity form around the jets, and travel posteriorly along with the body wave, until they are ultimately shed at the tail near the moment of stroke reversal. Behind the larva, two vortex pairs are formed per tail-beat cycle (the tail beating once left-to-right and then right-to-left) in the horizontal plane of the larval wake. By combining transverse and horizontal cross sections of the wake, we inferred that the wake behind a cyclically swimming zebrafish larva contains two diverging rows of vortex rings to the left and right of the mean path of motion, resembling the wake of steadily swimming adult eels. When the fish larva slows down at the end of a swimming bout, it gradually reduces its tail-beat frequency and amplitude, while the separated boundary layer and drag wake of the anterior body extend posteriorly to envelope the entire larva. This drag wake is considerably wider than the larval body. The effects of the intermediate flow regime manifest as a thick boundary layer and in the quick dying-off of the larval wake within less than half a second
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)196-205
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2008


  • locomotor function
  • rainbow-trout
  • vortex wake
  • dorsal fin
  • hydrodynamics
  • kinematics
  • zebrafish
  • forces
  • generation
  • morphology


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