Taking a Dive

There’s nothing like seabirds to. . . take a dive!

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

It’s a beautiful sight: seabirds diving head first into the water to catch unsuspecting prey. A perfect ten! But the northern gannet (GA-nit) takes gold with its flawless, high-speed dive. The fastest gannets can reach speeds of fifty miles per hour. By comparison, humans can be seriously injured diving at these speeds. Yet, despite their slender necks, these birds pull it off, no problem.

How these diving birds avoid injury? Sunny Jung from Virginia Tech has figured it out. To mimic diving, Jung and colleagues plunged a carefully designed bird model into a pool. They varied the head shape, neck length, and impact speed of the model. These tests revealed that gannet necks have evolved to be just the right length. And their high-speed dives stay within the speed limit to avoid injury.

Jung used this new understanding to estimate a diving speed limit for humans. If you dive feet first, aim for a speed under fifty miles-per-hour. Assuming you can control your speed!

Or better yet, since there’s no fish dinner involved? Use the stairs.