Tunas, mackerels, and billfishes (marlins, sailfishes, and swordfish) swim continuously. Feeding, courtship, reproduction, and
even “rest” are so carried out while in constant motion. As a result, practically every aspect of the body form and function of these
swimming “machines” is adapted to enhance their ability to swim.
Many of the adaptations of these fishes serve to reduce water resistance (drag). Interestingly enough, several of these
hydrodynamic adaptations resemble features designed to improve the aerodynamics of high-speed aircraft. Though human
engineers are new to the game, tunas and their relatives evolved their “high-tech” designs long ago.
Tunas, mackerels, and billfishes have made streaming into an art form. Their bodies are sleek and compact. The body shapes of
tunas, in fact, are nearly ideal from an engineering point of view. Most species lack scales over most of the body, making it smooth
and slippery. The eyes lie flush with the body and do not protrude at all. They are also covered with a slick, transparent lid that
reduces drag. The fins are stiff, smooth, and narrow, qualities that also help cut drag. When not in use, the fins are tucked into
special grooves or depressions so that they lie flush with the body and do not break up its smooth contours. Airplanes retract their
landing gear while in flight for the same reason.
Tunas, mackerels, and billfishes have even more sophisticated adaptations than these to improve their hydrodynamics. The
long bill of marlins, sailfishes, and swordfish probably helps them slip through the water. Many supersonic aircraft have a similar
needle at the nose.
Most tunas and billfishes have a series of keels and finlets near the tail. Although most of their scales have been lost, tunas and
mackerels retain a patch of coarse scales near the head called the corselet. The keels, finlets, and corselet help direct the flow of
water over the body surface in such a way as to reduce resistance. Again, supersonic jets have similar features.
Because they are always swimming, tunas simply have to open their mouths and water is forced in and over their gills.
Accordingly, they have lost most of the muscles that other fishes use to suck in water and push it past the gills. In fact, tunas must
swim to breathe. They must also keep swimming to keep from sinking, since most have largely or completely lost the swim bladder,
the gas-filled sac that helps most other fish remain buoyant.
One potential problem is that opening the mouth to breathe detracts from the streamlining of these fishes and tends to slow
them down. Some species of tuna have specialized grooves in their tongue. It is thought that these grooves help to channel water
through the mouth and out the gill slits, thereby reducing water resistance.
There are adaptations that increase the amount of forward thrust as well as those that reduce drag. Again, these fishes are the
envy of engineers. Their high, narrow tails with swept-back tips are almost perfectly adapted to provide propulsion with the least
possible effort. Perhaps most important of all to these and other fast swimmers is their ability to sense and make use of swirls and
eddies (circular currents) in the water. They can glide past eddies that would slow them down and then gain extra thrust by “pushing
off” the eddies. Scientists and engineers are beginning to study this ability of fishes in the hope of designing more efficient
propulsion systems for ships.
The muscles of these fishes and the mechanism that maintains a warm body temperature are also highly efficient. A blue fin
tuna in water of 7°C (45°F) can maintain a core temperature of over 25°C (77°F). This warm body temperature may help not only the
muscles to work better, but also the brain and the eyes. The billfishes have gone one step further. They have evolved special
“heaters” of modified muscle tissue that warm the eyes and brain, maintaining peak performance of these critical organs.