Size, not morphology, determines hydrodynamic performance of a kelp during peak flow

Document Type

Journal Article


Faculty of Computing, Health and Science


School of Natural Sciences / Centre for Marine Ecosystems Research




This article was originally published as: De Bettignies, T. , Wernberg, T. , & Lavery, P. S. (2012). Size, not morphology, determines hydrodynamic performance of a kelp during peak flow. Marine Biology: international journal on life in oceans and coastal waters, 160(4), 843-851. Original article available here


The morphology and shape of algae can affect their survival in wave-swept environments because of the hydrodynamic drag created by water flow. Studies of morphology and drag are typically conducted at relatively low water velocities, and the influence of algal morphology on drag, over the range of water velocities algae must cope with in their natural environment, remains unclear. Here, we tested the link between morphological variation and hydrodynamic drag for a dominant kelp with complex morphology (Ecklonia radiata), over a range of water velocities representative of conditions on wave-swept reefs. Our results indicated that kelps on subtidal reefs must withstand maximal orbital water velocities in excess of 2–3 m s−1. Our measurements of drag, resulting from flows ranging from 1 to 3 m s−1, revealed that shape- and width-related thallus and lamina characters were important to drag at low speed, but that total thallus area (or biomass) was the main determinant of drag at high flow. Drag coefficients converged at increasing speed suggesting that, at high flow, significant thallus reconfiguration (more streamlined shape) decoupled drag from morphology. This implies that, at peak velocities, only size (total area), not morphology, is important to drag and the probability of dislodgment.