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Biomechanics of turning manoeuvres in Steller sea lions (Eumetopias jubatus) Cheneval, Olivier


Otariids such as the Steller sea lion (Eumetopias jubatus) are among the most manoeuvrable of marine mammals (expressed as a minimum turning radius and speed during manoeuvres). They evolved in terrestrial and aquatic environments that are structurally complex, and feed on prey that are an order of magnitude smaller than themselves. Compared to other aquatic organisms, Steller sea lions have an unstable body design and are presumed to invoke swimming techniques that reflect their need to be highly manoeuvrable. Detailed information was experimentally obtained about the turning techniques employed by otariids through jointly analysing kinematic and kinetic parameters measured from video recordings of three captive Steller sea lions. Centripetal force and thrust production were determined by examining body movements throughout a series of turns. Results showed that most of the thrust was produced during the power phase of the stroke cycle of the pectoral flippers. As opposed to previous findings, very little or no thrust was generated during initial abduction of the pectoral flippers and during the final drag-based paddling style of the stroke cycle. Peak of the thrust force was reached halfway through the power phase, while the centripetal force reached its maximum value at the beginning of the power phase. Kinematic aspects of the manoeuvres changed with the tightness of the turns and the initial velocities. The degree of dorsal flexion of the body changed with the turning radius and the degree of flipper abduction varied with swimming speed. However, the general manoeuvring technique and turning sequence remained the same in all the recorded manoeuvres. Contrasting the turning performance of the Steller sea lion with a simple dynamic model of unpowered manoeuvres in aquatic animals showed significant departures from model predictions due to the hydrodynamic effects of body movements. Overall, the turning sequence of the Steller sea lion was found to be very consistent, and their manoeuvrability was found to come from their ability to vary the duration and intensity of movements within the turning sequence.

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