Ray-finned fishes actively control the shape and orientation of their fins to either generate or resist hydrodynamic forces. Because of the emergent mechanical properties of their segmented, bilaminar fin rays (lepidotrichia), and actuation by multiple muscles, fish can control the rigidity and curvature of individual rays independently, thereby varying the resultant forces across the fin surfaces. Expecting that differences in fin-ray morphology should reflect variation in their mechanical properties, we measured several musculoskeletal features of individual spines and rays of the dorsal and anal fins of bluegill sunfish, Lepomis macrochirus, and assessed their mobility and flexibility. We separated the fin-rays into four groups based on the fin (dorsal or anal) or fin-ray type (spine or ray) and measured the length of the spines/rays and the mass of the three median fin-ray muscles: the inclinators, erectors and depressors. Within the two ray groups, we measured the portion of the rays that were segmented vs. unsegmented and branched vs. unbranched. For the majority of variables tested, we found that variations between fin-rays within each group were significantly related to position within the fin and these patterns were conserved between the dorsal and anal rays. Based on positional variations in fin-ray and muscle parameters, we suggest that anterior and posterior regions of each fin perform different functions when interacting with the surrounding fluid. Specifically, we suggest that the stiffer anterior rays of the soft dorsal and anal fins maintain stability and keep the flow across the fins steady. The posterior rays, which are more flexible with a greater range of motion, fine-tune their stiffness and orientation, directing the resultant flow to generate lateral and some thrust forces, thus acting as an accessory caudal fin.
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