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Whirl-y-bird vs. Whale-y-bird

Time Required Very Short (≤ 1 day)
Prerequisites None
Material Availability Readily available
Cost Very Low (under $20)
Safety No issues


What do whale fins, shark skin, mackerel tails, and golf balls all have in common? Explore the science of hydrodynamics and biomimicry with this fun experiment.


In this experiment you will test if using biomimicry can improve the design of a very simple aircraft, the whirlybird.


Sara Agee, Ph.D., Science Buddies

This project was adapted from the NASA Explores Program:
NASA, Date Unknown. "Rotor Motor," Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration. [Accessed October 6, 2006]

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MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Whirl-y-bird vs. Whale-y-bird" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 30 June 2014. Web. 6 July 2015 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Aero_p015.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, June 30). Whirl-y-bird vs. Whale-y-bird. Retrieved July 6, 2015 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Aero_p015.shtml

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Last edit date: 2014-06-30


Humpback Whales are close cousins of the Blue Whale, the largest known animal on earth! They are a member of the baleen whales, and are famous for their "singing" ability. Another talent of the Humpback Whale is that it hunts for food by circling beneath a school of fish and creating a "bubble net" from below. The "bubble net" will surround the schooling fish so that the whale can swim up from below, mouth open wide to eat them all. To make the bubble net, the huge animal must turn a very fast, tight circle while swimming in the water. How does such a large animal maneuver so well through the water?

Humpback Whales have a very stiff body, similar to a large submarine. To help overcome this problem they have very long flippers on either side of their body that they use to maneuver. The front sides of the flippers have an irregular, scalloped edge that had puzzled scientists until they realized the secret. The bumps of a Humpback whale's fins are called tubercles, which help them move gracefully through the water without meeting too much resistance, drag, or friction.

whale fins
The fins of a Humpback Whale help them move through the water without generating too much drag, allowing the whale to maneuver gracefully through the water (AMNH, 2004).

Interestingly, other animals which swim the oceans have adaptations that help them avoid friction, too. Sharks have tiny scales, called denticles, on their skin which help reduce friction when swimming. Mackerel have sharp, tiny fins on the trunk of their tail which help reduce friction when moving their tail during swimming. Examples of friction-reduced surfaces can also be found in the sports that we play. A golf ball has many dimples covering the surface that help reduce drag, enabling the golfer to hit the ball farther. The one thing that all of these have in common is a textured surface structure.

Biomimetics is when a man-made object is engineered by modeling a natural object in the hope that the function of the man-made object will improve. In this experiment you will test different textured surfaces like those found on Humpback whales and Shark skins to see if they can improve the design of a simple wing. You will use a very simple flying object made of paper, called a whirlybird. Which design will reign supreme, the whirly-bird or the whale-y-bird?

Terms and Concepts

To do this type of experiment you should know what the following terms mean. Have an adult help you search the internet, or take you to your local library to find out more!

  • hydrodynamics
  • biomimetics
  • lift
  • friction
  • drag
  • surface structure
    • whale fin tubercles
    • shark skin riblets
    • mackerel finlets
    • golf-ball dimples


  • How do tubercles work?
  • How is lift generated and drag reduced?
  • Will using biomimetics improve the design of a paper whirly-bird?


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Materials and Equipment

  • scissors
  • construction paper
  • markers
  • stop watch
  • balcony or other high structure

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Experimental Procedure

  1. First you will need to make three whirly-birds with differently shaped edges. One will have a straight edge like the wing of a plane. One will have sharp, pointy edges like the tail of a tuna or the skin of a shark. The last one will have curvy, scalloped edges that resemble the tubercles of a whale fin or the dimples of a golf ball. Use the picture below as a template to make the three different whirly-birds from a sheet of construction paper:

    Whirlybird templates
  2. Next, follow these instructions to fold the whirly-birds:
    1. Cut the whirly-birds on all of the solid lines in the template.
    2. Fold sections A and B toward each other along the dotted lines.
    3. Make a small fold at the bottom Fold Line to hold sections A and B together.
    4. Fold section C down on the solid line.
    5. Flip the whirly-bird over and fold section D down so that it is on the other side from section C.
    6. Your finished whirly-bird should look like this:
    Finished whirlybird
  3. Now you can conduct your experiment. Find a high place, like a balcony or playground structure, where you can drop your whirly-birds safely to the ground. Also, choose a day that is not windy, or else your whirly-birds will not drop reliably.
  4. Drop each whirly-bird from the structure and time the fall with a stop watch in seconds. You should do several trials of each whirly-bird design, testing each one at least 10 times. Then, calculate an average by adding up all of your trials and dividing your answer by 10. This will help to normalize your results so you can make a fair comparison. Keep track of your results in a data table like this:

    Trial Number
    Time in Seconds (s)
    Straight Edges Pointy Edges Curvy Edges
  5. Make a bar graph of your data to compare the different wing designs. Make a time scale in seconds on the left side (y-axis) of the graph. Then draw a bar for each wing design up to the corresponding time. Be sure you remember to label the axes and the bars of your graph, and to give your graph a title.
  6. Analyze your data by asking yourself some questions. Which whirly-bird dropped the fastest? The slowest? What do you think this tells you about the level of air resistence of the design? How do you think this applies to water resistance?

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  • Another way to test the whirlybirds is to count the number of rotations that they make. The rotations are too fast to count by eye, so here is a clever trick from the NASA web site. Tape a piece of paper streamer to the bottom of the whirly bird long enough to reach your foot as you hold the whirly bird at shoulder level. Before you release the whirly-bird, gently put your foot on the bottom of the streamer and hold it as the whirly-bird falls. Then carefully count the number of twists in the streamer. This will match up with the number of rotations. Can you see why?
  • You can also try other whirly-bird designs to see how resistance and lift are effected. Try changing these other variables:
    • angle of incidence (change this by folding the wings over at different angles)
    • length of the wings (change this by altering the pattern to make the wings longer)
    • weight of the base (change this by attaching paperclips to the base)
    • or any other variable you can think of!
  • More advanced students will want to test if the results are statistically significant. Then you can make judgments as to the benefits of new designs. Can you quantify the level of improvement of some designs over others?

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