Sunday SciKu | Surf’s Up

Photo by Good Free Photos via Unsplash

If you’ve ever seen a pelican at the beach, you might have noticed that they seem to “surf” above the wave crests (there’s a video in the link). Because I compulsively generate hypotheses for everything, I imagined it was a hunting technique, and the wave action was bringing fish closer to the surface, or maybe the shallower troughs made the fish more visible at depth.

Nope. It turns out what they’re really doing is using the slight updrafts of air generated by the waves themselves to increase their lift, allowing them to glide farther using less energy. Just how much energy they conserve was modeled in a paper published this week out of UC-San Diego, as part of a PhD student’s master’s thesis.

They don’t just look like they’re surfing—they really are surfing on waves of air.


the upturned wing
of an old pelican
waves go by


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