(CN) — You’d think a hitchhiker would just be grateful for the ride, but when it comes to a type of ocean fish known for attaching itself to the bodies of whales, a new study finds these travelers are picky about where exactly they latch on.
The study, published Wednesday in the Journal of Experimental Biology, analyzed the behaviors of so-called “suckerfish” – more formally known as remoras – that hitch rides on blue whales, sharks and other marine mammals through a kind of built-in suction cup.
Researchers found the fish tend to choose spots on the whales’ bodies where the water flow is less intense as the whales move around.
“They seem to be congregating around the blowhole and around the dorsal fin primarily and also a little bit on the side of the body,” said Brooke Flammang, a biologist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and lead author on the study.
Flammang, who has studied remoras for years, said an equally notable finding from the new study was that the fish actually use the flow of water around those specific parts of the whale to stay attached. She compared it to a kayaker on a fast-flowing river hiding behind a rock while the water flows around him.
“When the whale is making these really rapid dives super deep or coming up to the surface really quickly, the remoras still have the ability to move around the body of the whale without having to move that hard,” Flammang said. “So they were really sort of living inside this layer of water surrounding the whale, and that was a really cool thing to see.”
The study was the first of its kind to get down to such a granular level of detail about how water flows around whales and how that affects the fish’s behaviors.
To get such a close-up picture of how the fish attach themselves to the whales, the multiple researchers involved in the study used a combination of actual recorded observations from special cameras placed on the whales and supercomputer simulations based on the data those cameras gathered.
“This is the first study to get down to like, millimeter resolution,” Flammang said.
Beyond simply learning more about this particular type of fish, the researchers hope the new study will contribute to a larger body of work that is helping them develop specialized “bio-inspired” suction technology based on the remoras’ own suction capabilities.
The idea, as Flammang described it, is that other marine scientists could use the technology to attach cameras to animals that won’t fall off as quickly as they currently do. High-powered suction cameras could also replace the current approach among some shark researchers of physically bolting cameras into the sharks’ fins.
“The interesting thing about [the remoras’] attachment is that they have the ability to attach for sustained periods of time, with reversible adhesion that leaves no marks, and we don’t have any manmade things that currently do this,” she said.
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