Despite almost 50 years of research on the functional morphology and biomechanics of suction feeding, no consensus has emerged on how to characterize suction-feeding performance, or its morphological basis. We argue that this lack of unity in the literature is due to an unusually indirect and complex linkage between the muscle contractions that power suction feeding, the skeletal movements that underlie buccal expansion, the sharp drop in buccal suction pressure that occurs during expansion, the flow of water that enters the mouth to eliminate the pressure gradient, and the forces that are ultimately exerted on the prey by this flow. This complexity has led various researchers to focus individually on suction pressure, flow velocity, or the distance the prey moves as metrics of suction-feeding performance. We attempt to integrate a mechanistic view of the ability of fish to perform these components of suction feeding. We first discuss a model that successfully relates aspects of cranial morphology to the capacity to generate suction pressure in the buccal cavity. This model is a particularly valuable tool for studying the evolution of the feeding mechanism. Second, we illustrate the multidimensional nature of suction-feeding performance in a comparison of bluegill, Lepomis macrochirus, and largemouth bass, Micropterus salmoides, two species that represent opposite ends of the spectrum of performance in suction feeding. As anticipated, bluegills had greater accuracy, lower peak flux into the mouth, and higher flow velocity and acceleration of flow than did bass. While the differences between species in accuracy of strike and peak water flux were substantial, peak suction velocity and acceleration were only about 50% higher in bluegill, a relatively modest difference. However, a hydrodynamic model of the forces that suction feeders exert on their prey shows that this difference in velocity is amplified by a positive effect of the smaller mouth aperture of bluegill on force exerted on the prey. Our model indicates that the pressure gradient in front of a fish that is feeding by suction, associated with the gradient in water velocity, results in a force on the prey that is larger than drag or acceleration reaction. A smaller mouth aperture results in a steeper pressure gradient that exerts a greater force on the prey, even when other features of the suction flow are held constant. Our work shows that some aspects of suction-feeding performance can be determined from morphology, but that the complexity of the behavior requires a diversity of perspectives to be used in order to adequately characterize performance.
Department, Program, or Center
Mechanical Engineering (KGCOE)
Wainwright, Peter; Carroll, Andrew; and Collar, David, "Suction feeding mechanics, performance, and diversity in fishes" (2007). Integrative and comparative biology, Vol. 47 (No. 1),Accessed from
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