Surface Tension Transport of Prey by Feeding Shorebirds: The Capillary Ratchet

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By M. Prakash, D. Quere, J.W.M. Bush, Science (2008) vol.320 p.931

Antony Orth

Abstract from paper

"The variability of bird beak morphology reflects diverse foraging strategies. One such feeding mechanism in shorebirds involves surface tension–induced transport of prey in millimetric droplets: By repeatedly opening and closing its beak in a tweezering motion, the bird moves the drop from the tip of its beak to its mouth in a stepwise ratcheting fashion. We have analyzed the subtle physical mechanism responsible for drop transport and demonstrated experimentally that the beak geometry and the dynamics of tweezering may be tuned to optimize transport efficiency. We also highlight the critical dependence of the capillary ratchet on the beak's wetting properties, thus making clear the vulnerability of capillary feeders to surface pollutants."

Capillarity Phenomena

This paper investigates the use of capillary forces by shorebirds to drive water droplets up their beaks against gravity. A first approximation to this behaviour was replicated in the laboratory by wetting a stainless steel wedge with silicon oil (which fully wets the mechanical beak). As was first observed by Hauksbee in 1712 (! - Pilos. Trans 27, 395), the drop of oil is spontaneously driven towards the vertex of the wedge.