After seven years of thinking and research, Zhi-Ming Yuan, has figured out why ducklings swim in a neat, nicely spaced row behind their mother. It is not just about ducklings sticking close to their mother for protection, it’s about hard science. They are using a “destructive wave interference phenomenon” to both ride and propagate her wake. That sounds incredibly technical and it probably is as it took seven years to work out. Yuan says that the process is beautiful because the ducklings pass the wave on.
The wake from the mother duck would normally spread out but the wave generated by the ducklings interferes with this. The wave narrows with each duckling which results in the one behind receiving a more focused boost. Yuan calls it “a free top-up”. The energy is passed downstream with the trailing ducklings getting the benefit. He says that from the third duck to the last, they are in a sweet spot receiving the same amount.
It’s a water version of the peloton that we see in the Tour de France. When they are correctly aligned, they pull each other along. Yuan used fluid dynamics to determine the optimal spacing. Yes, the ducks position themselves at the right distance apart to get the maximum benefit. They do this through feel rather than calculation!
He said: “I think so long as they are keeping the same speed as the mother, the ducklings will automatically identify this.”
Yuan is a hydrodynamics lecturer from the University of Strathclyde. He became intrigued with this duckling formation during a trip to a river with his daughter. It may be able to apply his research to reducing the consumption of fuel by shipping tankers. It is suggested that they could travel in convoy thereby saving fuel which would have a huge potential to cut costs and help control global warming in reducing the burning of fossil fuel.
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