The elaborate dance between waves, wind, and gliding pelicans is being worked out for the first time

The wave under their wings

A pelican says he has covered the formula that describes the ascent of a wave slope, as a tip to another pelican. Credit: David Baillot / University of California San Diego

It’s a common sight: pelicans gliding along the waves, beside the shore. These birds make this kind of surf look effortless, but in reality the physics in question that give them a great boost are not simple.

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

Mechanical engineering UC San Diego Ph.D. student Ian Stokes and advisor Professor Drew Lucas, from the Oceanography Institute of UC San Diego’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, found that pelicans can completely offset the energy they spend in flight by taking advantage of wind generated updates by waves through what is called a wave. -slope soaring. In short, by practicing this behavior, seabirds exploit wind generated by breaking waves to stay aloft.

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 do not stop there.

“There is a community of biologists and ornithologists studying the metabolic cost of aviation in birds that can use this and see how their research links to our estimates of theory. Similarly, our model produces a basic prediction for the winds generated by the swelling passing, which are important for physicists studying how the ocean and atmosphere interact to improve the weather forecast, “Stokes said.

“This is an interesting project because it shows how the waves actually move the air around, make wind. If you’re a lively bird, you can make the most of how you are “moving to wave tracking and taking advantage of these upgrades. Since seabirds travel long distances to find food, the benefits can be significant,” Lucas said.






Researchers have explained the physics of why pelicans can stay aloft above the waves for so long. Credit: Simone Staff / University of California San Diego

Stokes and Lucas, of course, are not the first scientists to study the physics of the atmosphere that pelicans and other birds are difficult to investigate so they can save energy for other activities. For centuries, humans have been inspired to see birds harness the power and patterns of high-flying winds.

That’s how it started with Stokes, now in his second year of his Ph.D. at UC San Diego. As a UC Santa Barbara undergraduate, Stokes, a surfer and windsurfer in his off-hours, needed a project for his senior physics class and thought about the birds that would accompany him on the waves. When he took a closer look, he appreciated the connection between their flight dynamics and the study of environmental fluid dynamics, the expertise of scientists at UC San Diego. The project eventually turned into a master thesis with Lucas, drawing inspiration from oceanographers at Scripps who seek to understand the interaction between the ocean and the atmosphere.

Raising a wave slope is just one of the many behaviors in seabirds that exploit the energy in their environment. By taking advantage of these predictable patterns, the birds are able to search, travel and find friends more effectively.

“As we appreciate their mastery of a volatile ocean environment, we gain insight into the basic physics that shape our world,” said Lucas.


A study examining the performance of flying in the tallest birds


Provided by University of California – San Diego

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