Swimming of larval zebrafish: ontogeny of body waves and implications for locomotory development

U.K. Müller, J.L. van Leeuwen

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156 Citations (Scopus)


Fish larvae, like most adult fish, undulate their bodies to propel themselves. A detailed kinematic study of the larval body wave is a prerequisite to formulate a set of functional requirements that the locomotor system must fulfil to generate the observed swimming kinematics. Lateral displacement and curvature profiles were obtained for zebrafish (Danio rerio) larvae at 2-21 days post-fertilisation for three swimming behaviours (cyclic swimming, slow starts and fast startle responses) using high-speed video. During cyclic swimming, fish larvae maintain tail beat frequencies of up to 100 Hz. The corresponding longitudinal strains, estimated from the peak curvatures of the midline, reach up to 0.19 in superficial tissue. The strain rate can reach 120 s(-1). The wave of curvature travels along the body at a near-constant rate. Posterior to the stiff head, body-length-specific curvature is high and rises gently along the entire trunk to a maximum value of 6. Burst-and-coast swimming generates similar peak curvatures to cyclic swimming, but curvature rises more steeply from head to tail. Fish larvae exhibit phase shifts of 57-63degrees between the wave of lateral displacement and the wave of curvature, resulting in a 1:1.2 ratio of body wave length to curvature wave length. During C-starts, muscle strain can reach 0.19 and superficial longitudinal strain rates approach 30 s(-1). Fish larvae do not initiate their escape response with a standing wave of curvature, although their C-starts approach a standing wave as the larvae grow older. The performance demands derived from swimming kinematics suggest that larval axial muscles have very short contraction cycles (10 ms), experience considerable strains (up to 0.2) and strain rates (up to 30 s(-1) in white muscle fibres) yet are able to power swimming for several seconds.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)853-868
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Publication statusPublished - 2004


  • carp cyprinus-carpio
  • trout oncorhynchus-mykiss
  • saithe pollachius-virens
  • power output
  • fast-starts
  • muscle dynamics
  • fish
  • performance
  • kinematics
  • speed

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