This is Scientific American — 60-Second Science. I'm Emily Schwing.
"Whales move by beating their tails."
Paolo Segre is a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford.
"And they've got these large muscular tails, which they can move and that's what powers them forward. And they use their flippers, sort of extended out to the side, to maneuver."
He and colleagues actually affixed cameras onto humpback whales, in the hope of learning more about how they move in their marine habitat. And those cameras caught a glimpse of something completely unexpected.
"We basically got video evidence of whales actually flapping their flippers, much like a bird flaps its wings, in order to power their forward swimming."
Segre calls the discovery "novel". Which is science-speak for never-before-noted. The flipper-powered push may come in handy especially when the whales engage in lunge-feeding—opening their giant mouths, then quickly moving forward to take in hundreds of gallons of water and its edible contents.
"Most of what we used to know about whales was from the whaling industry, from dissections of whales that washed up on shore, or from those brief glimpses that we got when we were sitting on a boat and see them surface while they're breathing."
The findings are in the journal Current Biology.
Segre says the newly discovered propulsion method is likely unique to the humpback whale, which is known for its very long and extremely mobile flippers. The finding might even lead to some real-world applications among us humans.
"But I think where this could be really interesting is actually with inspiring different shapes and movements of propellers or wind turbines...that's the type of place that we could look for if we really want to see how moving flippers could translate to something, to an engineering purpose."
Turns out the humpback's flippers tell their own unique tale.
Thanks for listening for Scientific American — 60-Second Science. I'm Emily Schwing.