The intricate dance between waves, wind and slippery pelicans is elaborated for the first time

Pelican says omitted the formula, which describes a wavy slope hovering, as a tip to another pelican. Credit: David Baillot / University of California San Diego

It is a common sight: pelicans gliding along the waves, right on the shore. These birds make this kind of surfing look effortless, but actually the physical engagements that give them a great boost are not simple.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego recently developed a theoretical model that describes how the ocean, wind, and flying birds interact in a recent article in Movement Ecology.

PhD in Mechanical Engineering from UC San Diego. student Ian Stokes and advisor Professor Drew Lucas, of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego and Institution of Oceanography Scripps, found that pelicans can fully compensate for the energy they expend in flight by exploiting wind surges generated by waves. , which is known as -slope hovering. Basically, by practicing this behavior, seabirds take advantage of winds generated by breaking waves to stay afloat.

The model could be used to develop better algorithms to control drones that need to fly over water for long periods of time, the researchers said. Possible uses don’t stop there.

“There is a community of biologists and ornithologists who study the metabolic cost of flight in birds who can use this and see how their research connects to our estimates in theory. Likewise, our model generates a basic prediction for the winds generated by passing swelling. , which is important for physicists who study how the ocean and atmosphere interact to improve weather forecasting, ”Stokes said.

“This is an interesting project because it shows how the waves actually move the air around, turning into wind. If you’re a wise bird, you can optimize how you move to track waves and take advantage of these ascents. Because seabirds travel long distances for finding food, the benefits can be significant, ”Lucas said.

Researchers explain the physics of why pelicans can stay long above the waves. Credit: Simone Staff / University of California San Diego

Stokes and Lucas are, of course, not the first scientists to study the physics of the atmosphere, which pelicans and other birds find difficult to understand so that they can conserve energy for other activities. For centuries, humans have been inspired by the sight of birds that harness the power and patterns of the winds for high flight.

So it began at Stokes, who is now in the second year of his doctorate. at UC San Diego. As a UC Santa Barbara student, Stokes, a surfer and windsurfer during his free time, needed a project for his senior physical class and thought about the birds that would accompany him on the waves. When he looked closer, he appreciated the relationship between their flight dynamics and the study of environmental fluid dynamics, a specialty of scientists at UC San Diego. The project eventually became a masterful dissertation with Lucas, inspired by oceanographers at Scripps, who aim to understand the interactions between ocean and atmosphere.

Waving hovering is just one of the many behaviors in seabirds that harness the energy in their environment. By striking out these predictable patterns, the birds can eat, travel, and find pairs more effectively.

“As we appreciate their mastery of the flowing, ever-changing ocean environment, we get to know the fundamental physics that shape our world,” Lucas said.

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