For birds diving to depths where pressure has mostly reduced the buoyancy of air spaces, hydrodynamic drag is the main mechanical cost of steady swimming. Drag is strongly affected by body size and shape, so such differences among species should affect energy costs. Because flow around the body is complicated by the roughness and vibration of feathers, feathers must be considered in evaluating the effects of size and shape on drag. We investigated the effects of size, shape and feathers on the drag of avian divers ranging from wing-propelled auklets weighing 75 g to foot-propelled eiders weighing up to 2060 g. Laser scanning of body surfaces yielded digitized shapes that were averaged over several specimens per species and then used by a milling machine to cut foam models. These models were fitted with casts of the bill area, and their drag was compared with that of frozen specimens. Because of the roughness and vibration of the feathers, the drag of the frozen birds was 2–6 times that of the models. Plots of drag coefficient (C(D)) versus Reynolds number (Re) differed between the model and the frozen birds, with the pattern of difference varying with body shape. Thus, the drag of cast models or similar featherless shapes can differ both quantitatively and qualitatively from that of real birds. On the basis of a new towing method with no posts or stings that alter flow or angles of attack, the dimensionless C(D)/Re curves differed among a size gradient of five auklet species (75–100g) with similar shapes. Thus, extrapolation of C(D)/Re curves among related species must be performed with caution. At lower speeds, the C(D) at a given Re was generally higher for long-necked birds that swim with their neck extended (cormorants, grebes, some ducks) than for birds that swim with their head retracted (penguins, alcids), but this trend was reversed at high speeds. Because swimming birds actually travel at a range of instantaneous speeds during oscillatory strokes, species variations in drag at different speeds must be considered in the context of accelerational stroking.

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