Flow-induced bioluminescence provides a unique opportunity for visualizing the flow field around a swimming dolphin. Unfortunately, previous descriptions of dolphin-stimulated bioluminescence have been largely anecdotal and often conflicting. Most references in the scientific literature report an absence of bioluminescence on the dolphin body, which has been invariably assumed to be indicative of laminar flow. However, hydrodynamicists have yet to find compelling evidence that the flow remains laminar over most of the body. The recent study integrated laboratory, computational and field approaches to begin to assess the utility of using bioluminescence as a method for flow visualization by relating fundamental characteristics of the flow to the stimulation of naturally occurring luminescent plankton.

Laboratory experiments using fully-developed pipe flow revealed that the bioluminescent organisms identified in the field studies can be stimulated in both laminar and turbulent flow when shear stress values exceeded approximately 0.1 N m^-2. Computational studies of an idealized hydrodynamic representation of a dolphin (modeled as a 6:1 ellipsoid), gliding at a speed of 2 m s^-1, predicted suprathreshold surface shear stress values everywhere on the model, regardless of whether the boundary layer flow was laminar or turbulent. Laboratory flow visualization of a sphere demonstrated that the intensity of bioluminescence decreased with increasing flow due to the thinning of the boundary layer, while flow separation caused a dramatic increase due to the significantly greater volume of stimulating flow in the wake. Intensified video recordings of dolphins gliding at speeds of approximately 2 m s^-1 confirmed that brilliant displays of bioluminescence occurred on the body of the dolphin. The distribution and intensity of bioluminescence suggest that the flow remained attached over most of the body. A conspicuous lack of bioluminescence was often observed on the dolphin rostrum, melon and the leading edge of the dorsal and pectoral fins, where the boundary layer is thought to be the thinnest. To differentiate between effects related to the thickness of the stimulatory boundary layer and those due to the latency of the bioluminescence response and the upstream depletion of bioluminescence, laboratory and dolphin studies of forced separation and laminar to turbulent transition were conducted. The observed pattern of stimulated bioluminescence is consistent with the hypothesis that bioluminescent intensity is directly related to the thickness of the boundary layer.