A novel mechanism of mixing by pulsing corals

Julia E. Samson, Laura A. Miller*, Dylan Ray, Roi Holzman, Uri Shavit, Shilpa Khatri

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The dynamic pulsation of xeniid corals is one of the most fascinating phenomena observed in coral reefs. We quantify for the first time the flow near the tentacles of these soft corals, the active pulsations of which are thought to enhance their symbionts’ photosynthetic rates by up to an order of magnitude. These polyps are approximately 1 cm in diameter and pulse at frequencies between approximately 0.5 and 1 Hz. As a result, the frequency-based Reynolds number calculated using the tentacle length and pulse frequency is on the order of 10 and rapidly decays as with distance from the polyp. This introduces the question of how these corals minimize the reversibility of the flow and bring in new volumes of fluid during each pulse. We estimate the Péclet number of the bulk flow generated by the coral as being on the order of 100–1000 whereas the flow between the bristles of the tentacles is on the order of 10. This illustrates the importance of advective transport in removing oxygen waste. Flow measurements using particle image velocimetry reveal that the individual polyps generate a jet of water with positive vertical velocities that do not go below 0.1 cm s−1 and with average volumetric flow rates of approximately 0.71 cm3 s−1. Our results show that there is nearly continual flow in the radial direction towards the polyp with only approximately 3.3% back flow. 3D numerical simulations uncover a region of slow mixing between the tentacles during expansion. We estimate that the average flow that moves through the bristles of the tentacles is approximately 0.03 cm s−1. The combination of nearly continual flow towards the polyp, slow mixing between the bristles, and the subsequent ejection of this fluid volume into an upward jet ensures the polyp continually samples new water with sufficient time for exchange to occur.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberjeb192518
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number15
StatePublished - 2019


FundersFunder number
National Science Foundation1504777, 1151478, 1505061, 1127914


    • Biomechanics
    • Computational fluid dynamics
    • Lagrangian particle tracking
    • Soft corals
    • Xeniidae


    Dive into the research topics of 'A novel mechanism of mixing by pulsing corals'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this