Quantification of flow during suction feeding in bluegill sunfish

Zoology (Jena). 2003;106(2):159-68. doi: 10.1078/0944-2006-00110.


Nearly all aquatic-feeding vertebrates use some amount of suction to capture prey items. Suction prey capture occurs by accelerating a volume of water into the mouth and taking a prey item along with it. Yet, until recently, we lacked the necessary techniques and analytical tools to quantify the flow regime generated by feeding fish. We used a new approach; Digital Particle Image Velocimetery (DPIV) to measure several attributes of the flow generated by feeding bluegill sunfish. We found that the temporal pattern of flow was notably compressed during prey capture. Flow velocity increased rapidly to its peak within 20 ms of the onset of the strike, and this peak corresponded to the time that the prey entered the mouth during capture. The rapid acceleration and deceleration of water suggests that timing is critical for the predator in positioning itself relative to the prey so that it can be drawn into the mouth along with the water. We also found that the volume of water affected by suction was spatially limited. Only rarely did we measure significant flow beyond 1.75 cm of the mouth aperture (in 20 cm fish), further emphasizing the importance of mechanisms, like locomotion, that place the fish mouth in close proximity to the prey. We found that the highest flows towards the mouth along the fish midline were generated not immediately in front of the open mouth, but approximately 0.5 cm anterior to the mouth opening. Away from the midline the peak in flow was closer to the mouth. We propose that this pattern indicates the presence of a bow wave created by the locomotor efforts of the fish. In this scheme, the bow wave acts antagonistically to the flow of water generated by suction, the net effect being to push the region of peak flow away from the open mouth. The peak was located farther from the mouth opening in strikes accompanied by faster locomotion, suggesting faster fish created larger bow waves.