One day in the early 1980s Frank E. Fish noticed a small statue of a humpback whale in a Boston sculpture gallery. On closer examination, he saw that the creature's large, winglike pectoral flippers were studded with evenly spaced bumps along their leading edges. Fish was taken by surprise. As a specialist in the hydrodynamics of vertebrate swimming, he knew of no cetacean flippers, fish fins or avian wings that bore such odd features--all of those have smooth front edges. He mentioned this to his wife and conjectured aloud that the artist must have made a mistake. The storeowner, overhearing Fish's comments and knowing the sculptor's meticulous attention to detail, soon produced a photograph that clearly showed the humpback's lumpy flippers. Fish marked down the unusual protuberances for future research.
After intermittent study over the next two decades--involving in one instance the sawing off of three-meter-long flippers from a rotting, beached humpback--the biology professor at Pennsylvania's West Chester University and several colleagues have recently shown that the whale's knobby side appendages in some ways trump the more conventional sleek designs of both human and nature.
This article was originally published with the title Bumpy Flying.