A freshwater spider Dolomedes runs along the surface
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A freshwater spider Dolomedes runs along the surface

May 26, 2010
A freshwater spider Dolomedes runs along the surface, leaving vortices behind its four pairs of stroking legs. In this National Science Foundation-supported project, dye studies were performed in order to determine what the propulsion mechanism is of the water strider (gerris remigis), a common water-walking insect. [Image 2 of 5 related images. See Image 3.]

More about this Image Water striders (gerris remigis) are common water walking insects approximately 1 cm long that resides on the surface of ponds, rivers and the open ocean. In the past, it was believed that water striders develop momentum using the tiny waves they generate as they flap their legs across the water's surface. This was because striders move so quickly that all you see is the waves. But baby water striders legs are not big enough to generate waves and therefore should be incapable of propelling themselves along the surface. So how are they able to move?

Enter Dr. John W. M. Bush, a mathematician from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and his team of researchers who, using high-speed video and blue-dyed water, track the movement of water striders. Bush's high speed images and dye studies show that the water strider propels itself by driving its central pair of legs in a sculling motion. In order for it to move, it must transfer momentum to the underlying fluid. It was previously assumed that this transfer occurs exclusively through capillary waves excited by the leg stroke but Bush and his team found that, conversely, the strider transfers momentum to the fluid principally through dipolar vortices shed by its driving legs. The strider thus generates thrust by rowing, using its legs as oars, and the menisci beneath its driving legs as blades.

Dr. Bush received a grant from NSF's Fluid Dynamics and Hydraulics program (CTS 01-30465) for this project. An NSF graduate fellowship award supports David Hu, a graduate student working on the project. (Year of image: 2003)

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