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 (! - Philos. Trans 27, 395), the drop of oil is spontaneously driven towards the vertex of the wedge. This is a result of the pressure difference between the two ends of the capillary bridge created by the water droplet in the beak. The air pressure on the open end of the beak is lower than the pressure in the drop; there is a pressure drop across the opposite water-air interface which overcompensates for the first pressure difference (because the interface closer to the vertex of the wedge is more curved than the interface on the open side). A net pressure therefore drives the droplet up the wedge.

In the true-to-life case, however, water does not fully wet the bird's bill: there is contact angle hysteresis, which impedes the spontaneous motion of the drop up the beak. This is the reason for the "tweezering motion" observed in shore birds. The drop is "pumped" up the bill via capillary forces arising from the difference in advancing and receding contact angles.