Wake structures behind a swimming robotic lamprey with a passively flexible tail

Megan C. Leftwich, Eric D. Tytell, Avis H. Cohen, Alexander J. Smits

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


A robotic lamprey, based on the silver lamprey, Ichthyomyzon unicuspis, was used to investigate the influence of passive tail flexibility on the wake structure and thrust production during anguilliform swimming. A programmable microcomputer actuated 11 servomotors that produce a traveling wave along the length of the lamprey body. The waveform was based on kinematic studies of living lamprey, and the shape of the tail was taken from a computer tomography scan of the silver lamprey. The tail was constructed of flexible PVC gel, and nylon inserts were used to change its degree of flexibility. Particle image velocimetry measurements using three different levels of passive flexibility show that the large-scale structure of the wake is dominated by the formation of two pairs of vortices per shedding cycle, as seen in the case of a tail that flexed actively according to a predefined kinematic pattern, and did not bend in response to fluid forces. When the tail is passively flexible, however, the large structures are composed of a number of smaller vortices, and the wake loses coherence as the degree of flexibility increases. Momentum balance calculations indicate that, at a given tailbeat frequency, increasing the tail flexibility yields less net force, but changing the cycle frequency to match the resonant frequency of the tail increases the force production.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)416-425
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Insect Science
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Physiology


  • Anguilliform swimming
  • Flexibility
  • Hydrodynamics
  • Lamprey
  • Thrust production


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