Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) has been a valuable tool in engineering for decades, but its use is spreading to other fields as well. The image to the left shows a reconstruction of Parvancorina, a shield-shaped marine creature that lived some 550 million years ago. Fossil evidence alone cannot tell paleontologists whether this extinct creature could move through the water, and there are no living relatives that resemble the creature that scientists could study as an analogue. Instead, researchers turned to CFD to simulate flow over and around Parvancorina. They found that Parvancorina’s shape caused fast flow over the outer portions of its body and the slowest flow near its mouth. The results suggest that, not only was the creature mobile in the water, but that it was able to adjust its orientation to drive flow to different areas of its body. Paleontologists have only been using CFD for a decade or so, but already it’s giving us valuable insight into the creatures that roamed our planet hundreds of millions of years ago. (Image credit: M. De Stefano/Muse, I. Rahman; via Physics Today)
Gall midge larvae, despite their lack of legs, are prodigious jumpers. These worm-like creatures use hydrostatic pressure to jump more than 30 body lengths. To do so, the larva curls itself into a loop, latching its mouth to its tail. It then shifts the fluids inside its body, flattening itself as the pressure builds. When the larva releases its tail, it flies into the air at about 1 m/s. The human equivalent of a gall midge larva’s jump would be about 60 meters, far beyond the world record long jump of less than 9 meters (with a running start). The larva’s technique is a relatively simple but highly effective one that might be useful in applications like soft robotics. (Video credit: Science; research credit: G. Farley et al.)
Saguaro cacti can grow 15 meters tall, and despite their shallow root systems can withstand storm winds up to 38 meters per second without being blown over. Grooves in the cacti’s surface may contribute to its resilience, by adding structural support and/or through reducing aerodynamic loads. The latter theory mirrors the concept of dimples on a golf ball; namely, grooves create turbulence in the flow near the cactus, which allows air flow to track further around the cactus before separating. The result is less drag for a given wind speed than a smooth cactus would experience.
Indeed, recent experiments on a grooved cylinder with a pneumatically-controlled shape showed exactly that; the morphable cylinder’s drag was consistently significantly lower than fixed samples. Cacti do change their shapes somewhat as their water content changes, but they don’t have the ability for up-to-the-minute alterations. Nevertheless, their adaptations can inspire engineered creations that morph to reduce wind impact. (Image credit: A. Levine; research credit: M. Guttag and P. Reis)
Flying lizards are truly gliders, but that doesn’t mean they’re unsophisticated. Newly reported observations of the species in the wild show that flying lizards don’t simply hold their forelimbs out a la Superman. Instead, they reach back with their forelimbs, pressing their arms into the underside of the thin patagium that serves as their flight surface while rotating their hands to grasp the upper side of the patagium. This forms a composite wing with a thicker leading edge and seems to be how the lizards control their glide. Close observation of their flight shows that, while holding their patagium, the lizards actively arch their backs to camber their composite wing. This can increase their maximum lift coefficient, allowing them to glide longer distances. (Image and research credit: J. Dehling, source)
Inside each of us is a remarkable and constant flow, driven by a muscle that’s always at work. As blood circulates through our bodies, it goes through a surprisingly varied journey. In the heart, as seen above, blood flow is very unsteady and quite turbulent, due to the beating pulse of the heart. As valves open and close and the muscle walls constrict and relax, the rushing blood moves in eddy-filled spurts. In the outer reaches of our capillaries, however, the nature of the flow is quite different. Thanks to smaller vessel sizes and other factors, capillary blood flow is much steadier and more laminar. Viscosity becomes more important, as do the non-Newtonian properties of components in our blood. (Image credit: mushin111/YouTube, source; via Science; submitted by Gary N.)