Gelatinous Sea Snails Flutter Through the Arctic Sea on Wings like Insects Through the Air

First Posted: Feb 19, 2016 07:52 AM EST

Scientists have discovered a bizarre sea snail that swims like a flying insect. The snail is actually propelled by fleshy wings beneath the waves that allow them to flit around the Arctic water that they call home.

While researchers have known that these snails were propelled by these wings, very little was known about how they used them to move through the water. For example, most zooplankton swim with a drag-based padding technique. In order to learn a bit more about the snails, the researchers built a model.

The scientists created a new 3D system to visualize fluid movements around minute animals. They created a specialized tank for the sea butterflies by cutting a V-shaped structure at the bottom of the tank to ensure the freely swimming snails repeatedly ascended through the middle portion of the tank. That's where the researchers placed four high-speed cameras to capture every detail of the wings' movements.

So what did they find? After months of analysis, the researchers realized that the snails were swimming just like fruit flies fly. They have a characteristic figure-of-eight wing beat that's only apparent after taking into account the snail's bobbing motion.

Both the snails and fruit flies clap their wings together at the top of a wing beat before peeling them apart, sucking fluid into the V-shaped gap between the wings to create low-pressure vortices at the wing tips and generate lift.

The findings reveal a bit more about how these snails "fly" through the water, which reveals a bit more about propulsion.

The findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.

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