- 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.
For Further Exploration
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 the natural world as a guide to develop new technology.
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.
the study of water in motion.
language of ancient Rome and the Roman Empire.
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.
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.
the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.
small, rounded bump on the skin or other body tissue.
machine that captures the energy of a moving fluid, such as air or water.
column of rotating fluid, such as air (wind) or water.