A research team at Virginia Tech has developed a mechanism to explain how seabirds safely plunge into the ocean when looking for food despite their slim necks (1).
In order to surprise their targets, many species of seabirds dive into the ocean at speeds faster than 60 miles per hour. Diving into the water at those speeds as a human easily shatters bones and tears muscles.
In the study, Jung and his fellow researchers examine the biomechanics of gannets, large white birds with yellowish heads, and their diving technique. The team discovered that a typical gannet’s head shape, neck length, and muscle system and diving speeds coordinate to ensure that the force of the water doesn’t crumple their long and slender necks (2).
In order to fully study the gannet’s body shape and neck muscle shape, Jung’s team borrowed a salvaged gannet skeleton from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. They also used 3-D printed replicas of gannet skulls from the Smithsonian Institution to help measure different types of forces on the skull as it plunges into the water (2).
Drag force serves as the major stress on a bird’s head as it dives beneath the waves, increasing with speed. Researchers mimicked the bird’s body structure by attaching a 3-D printed cone on a flexible rubber tube, and plunged the model into a bowl of water (2). After each trial, they would change cone angle, neck length, and impact speed, using high-speed video to detect whether the neck collapsed or not.
The team’s data from the multiple trials revealed that the shift from stability to distortion depends on the head’s geometry, the neck’s muscle properties, and the bird’s velocity at impact. The gannet’s tapered nose, pointed beak and neck length help prevent the drag force from causing damage (2). Researchers also learned that the gannets minimize risk of injury by shrinking their neck muscles right before hitting the water, straightening their curvy necks.
Jung and his team hope to use the bio-mechanic data gleaned from gannets’ diving patterns to help safely determine the maximum height for human divers, as well as to advise recommendations for positions that reduce possible injuries. They also plan to work with a design team on a gannet-shaped projectile that would be used for autonomous sensing (2).
- Brian Chang, Matthew Croson, Lorian Straker, Sean Gart, Carla Dove, John Gerwin, Sunghwan Jung. How seabirds plunge-dive without injuries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2016; 201608628 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1608628113
- Virginia Tech. (2026, October 5). How do birds dive safely at high speeds? New research explains. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 9, 2026 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2026/20/262005260202.htm