Glenna T. Clifton and Andrew A Biewener
Loons (Gaviiformes) are arguably one of the most successful groups of swimming birds. As specialist foot-propelled swimmers, loons are capable of diving up to 70 meters, remaining underwater for several minutes, and capturing fish. Despite the swimming prowess of loons, their undomesticated nature has prevented prior quantitative analysis. Our study used high-speed underwater cameras to film healthy common loons (Gavia immer) at the Tufts Wildlife Clinic in order to analyze their swimming and turning strategies. Loons swim by synchronously paddling their feet laterally at an average of 1.8 Hz. Combining flexion-extension of the ankle with rotation at the knee, loon swimming resembles grebe swimming and likely generates lift forces for propulsion. Loons modulate swimming speed by altering power stroke duration and use head-bobbing to enhance underwater vision. We observed that loons execute tight but slow turns compared to other aquatic swimmers, potentially associated with hunting by flushing fish from refuges at short range. To execute turns, loons use several strategies. Loons increase the force produced on the outside of the turn by increasing the speed of the outboard foot, which also begins its power stroke before the inboard foot. During turns, loons bank their body away from the turn and alter the motion of the feet to maintain the turn. Our findings demonstrate that foot-propelled swimming has evolved convergently in loon and grebes, but divergently from cormorants. The swimming and turning strategies used by loons that allow them to capture fish could inspire robotic designs or novel paddling techniques.