Basal ray-finned fishes possess a heterocercal tail in which the dorsal lobe containing the extension of the vertebral column is longer than the ventral lobe. Clarifying the function of the heterocercal tail has proved elusive because of the difficulty of measuring the direction of force produced relative to body position in the aquatic medium. We measured the direction of force produced by the heterocercal tail of the white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) by visualizing flow in the wake of the tail using digital particle image velocimetry (DPIV) while simultaneously recording body position and motion using high-speed video. To quantify tail function, we measured the vertical body velocity, the body angle and the path angle of the body from video recordings and the vortex ring axis angle and vortex jet angle from DPIV recordings of the wake downstream from the tail. These variables were measured for sturgeon exhibiting three swimming behaviors at 1.2 L s(−)(1), where L is total body length: rising through the water column, holding vertical position, and sinking through the water column. For vertical body velocity, body angle and path angle values, all behaviors were significantly different from one another. For vortex ring axis angle and vortex jet angle, rising and holding behavior were not significantly different from each other, but both were significantly different from sinking behavior. During steady horizontal swimming, the sturgeon tail generates a lift force relative to the path of motion but no rotational moment because the reaction force passes through the center of mass. For a rising sturgeon, the tail does not produce a lift force but causes the tail to rotate ventrally in relation to the head since the reaction force passes ventral to the center of mass. While sinking, the direction of the fluid jet produced by the tail relative to the path of motion causes a lift force to be created and causes the tail to rotate dorsally in relation to the head since the reaction force passes dorsal to the center of mass. These data provide evidence that sturgeon can actively control the direction of force produced by their tail while maneuvering through the water column because the relationship between vortex jet angle and body angle is not constant.

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