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Science. 2008 May 16;320(5878):931-4. doi: 10.1126/science.1156023.

Surface tension transport of prey by feeding shorebirds: the capillary ratchet.

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Center for Bits and Atoms, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), 20 Ames Street, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.


The variability of bird beak morphology reflects diverse foraging strategies. One such feeding mechanism in shorebirds involves surface tension-induced transport of prey in millimetric droplets: By repeatedly opening and closing its beak in a tweezering motion, the bird moves the drop from the tip of its beak to its mouth in a stepwise ratcheting fashion. We have analyzed the subtle physical mechanism responsible for drop transport and demonstrated experimentally that the beak geometry and the dynamics of tweezering may be tuned to optimize transport efficiency. We also highlight the critical dependence of the capillary ratchet on the beak's wetting properties, thus making clear the vulnerability of capillary feeders to surface pollutants.

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