A humpback whale breaches the surface off of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. A breach is a large leap where most of the whale's body leaves the water. Marine biologists are not certain why whales breach. It may be a form of communication between members of the same social group, or it may be a feeding behavior.

Photograph by Lisa Winchester, MyShot
    • The humpback whale's scientific name is Megaptera novaeangliae. Megaptera novaeangliae is Latin for "big wing of New England." Although humpbacks are found in all the world's oceans, they were named after their appearance in the North Atlantic, off the coast of New England, just like this one, photographed near Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
    • Humpback whales' "big wings" are their enormous pectoral flippers. A humpback's pectoral flippers are the largest of any whale, measuring up to 5 meters (16 feet)—a third of the whale's entire body length!
    • Unlike the smooth flippers of other marine mammals (such as seals or killer whales), a humpback's pectoral flippers are bumpy and ridged. These bumps are called tubercles.
    • Tubercles may make the humpback's flippers look awkward, but they are an excellent adaptation to the whale's life in the ocean. The bumpy surface of the humpback flipper is actually much more hydrodynamic than a smooth flipper. As whales swim, tubercles disrupt the sheer pressure against the edge of the flipper and redirect the swirling vortices into channels between the tubercles. This reduces the movement's drag and increases its lift.
    • The deceptively beautiful hydrodynamics of a humpback's "big wing" are a source of inspiration for cutting-edge technology. The process of imitating natural systems to solve human problems is called biomimicry. Biomimicry's implications for the humpback's low-drag, high-lift flipper may include improved design for: helicopter rotors, airplane wings, propellers, rudders, industrial fans, and wind or water turbines.
  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    adaptation Noun

    a modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence. An adaptation is passed from generation to generation.

    Encyclopedic Entry: adaptation
    biomimicry Noun

    process of using models, systems, and elements of nature as a guide for developing new technology.

    drag Noun

    resistance to the motion of a body passing through a fluid, such as air or water.

    humpback whale Noun

    marine mammal native to all of Earth's oceans.

    hydrodynamics Noun

    the study of water in motion.

    Latin Noun

    language of ancient Rome and the Roman Empire.

    lift Noun

    force acting to lift an object upward.

    New England Noun

    area in the United States comprising the states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont.

    ocean Noun

    large body of salt water that covers most of the Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ocean
    pectoral flipper Noun

    limblike structures located on the side of the body of marine mammals.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    tubercle Noun

    small, rounded bump on the skin or other body tissue.

    turbine Noun

    machine that captures the energy of a moving fluid, such as air or water.

    vortex Noun

    column of rotating fluid, such as air (wind) or water.