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Ring Bubbles of DolphinsThe article discusses how dolphins create and play with three types of air-filled vortices. The underlying physics is discussed. Photographs and sketches illustrating the dolphin's actions and physics are presented. The dolphins engage in this behavior on their own initiative without food reward. These behaviors are done repeatedly and with singleminded effort. The first type is the ejection of bubbles which, after some practice on the part of the dolphin, turn into toroidal vortex ring bubbles by the mechanism of baroclinic torque. These bubbles grow in radius and become thinner as they rise vertically to the surface. One dolphin would blow two in succession and guide them to fuse into one. Physicists call this a vortex reconnection. In the second type, the dolphins first create an invisible vortex ring in the water by swimming on their side and waving their tail fin (also called flukes) vigorously. This vortex ring travels horizontally in the water. The dolphin then turns around, finds the vortex and injects a stream of air into it from its blowhole. The air "fills-out" the core of the vortex ring. Often, the dolphin would knock-off a smaller ring bubble from the larger ring (this also involves vortex reconnection) and steer the smaller ring around the tank. One other dolphin employed a few other techniques for planting air into the fluke vortex. One technique included standing vertically in the water with tail-up, head-down and tail piercing the free surface. As the fluke is waved to create the vortex ring, air is entrained from above the surface. Another technique was gulping air in the mouth, diving down, releasing air bubbles from the mouth and curling them into a ring when they rose to the level of the fluke. In the third type, demonstrated by only one dolphin, the longitudinal vortex created by the dorsal fin on the back is used to produce 10-15 foot long helical bubbles. In one technique she swims in a curved path. This creates a dorsal fin vortex since centrifugal force has to be balanced by a lift-like force. She then re-traces her path and injects air into the vortex from her blowhole. She can even make a ring reconnect from the helix. In the second technique, demonstrated a few times, she again swims in a curved path, releases a cloud or group of bubbles from her blowhole and turns sharply away (Which presumably strengthens the vortex). As the bubbles encounter the vortex, they travel to the center of the vortex, merge and, in a flash, elongate along the core of the vortex. In all the three types, the air-water interface is shiny smooth and stable because the pressure gradient in the vortex flow around the bubble stabilizes it. A lot of the interesting physics still remains to be explored.
Document ID
Acquisition Source
Ames Research Center
Document Type
Shariff, Karim
(NASA Ames Research Center Moffett Field, CA United States)
Marten, Ken
(Earthtrust Kailua, HI United States)
Psarakos, Suchi
(Earthtrust Kailua, HI United States)
White, Don J.
(Earthtrust Kailua, HI United States)
Merriam, Marshal
Date Acquired
August 20, 2013
Publication Date
January 1, 1996
Subject Category
Life Sciences (General)
Funding Number(s)
PROJECT: RTOP 505-59-53
Distribution Limits
Work of the US Gov. Public Use Permitted.

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