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Journal of Experimental Biology partnership with Dryad

The hydrodynamic function of shark skin and two biomimetic applications
Johannes Oeffner, George V. Lauder


It has long been suspected that the denticles on shark skin reduce hydrodynamic drag during locomotion, and a number of man-made materials have been produced that purport to use shark-skin-like surface roughness to reduce drag during swimming. But no studies to date have tested these claims of drag reduction under dynamic and controlled conditions in which the swimming speed and hydrodynamics of shark skin and skin-like materials can be quantitatively compared with those of controls lacking surface ornamentation or with surfaces in different orientations. We use a flapping foil robotic device that allows accurate determination of the self-propelled swimming (SPS) speed of both rigid and flexible membrane-like foils made of shark skin and two biomimetic models of shark skin to measure locomotor performance. We studied the SPS speed of real shark skin, a silicone riblet material with evenly spaced ridges and a Speedo® ‘shark skin-like’ swimsuit fabric attached to rigid flat-plate foils and when made into flexible membrane-like foils. We found no consistent increase in swimming speed with Speedo® fabric, a 7.2% increase with riblet material, whereas shark skin membranes (but not rigid shark skin plates) showed a mean 12.3% increase in swimming speed compared with the same skin foils after removing the denticles. Deformation of the shark skin membrane is thus crucial to the drag-reducing effect of surface denticles. Digital particle image velocimetry (DPIV) of the flow field surrounding moving shark skin foils shows that skin denticles promote enhanced leading-edge suction, which might have contributed to the observed increase in swimming speed. Shark skin denticles might thus enhance thrust, as well as reduce drag.



    This work was supported by National Science Foundation grants IBN0316675 and EFRI-0938043 to G.V.L.

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