How do diving gannets avoid breaking their necks?

The sight of gannets diving into water for their prey is impressive to behold, but how do they avoid breaking their necks at such a high speed?

Northern gannet (Morus bassanus) plunge-diving for fish alongside Shetland pelagic trawler

Plunge-diving gannets hit the water at speeds of up to 86kph – fast enough to do some serious damage if they were a human diver.

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The bird’s long, slender neck may look like it would buckle on impact, but the muscles are arranged to lock the vertebrae in place before entry – to the extent that gannets are theoretically capable of withstanding dive speeds of up to 288kph.

Other adaptations include a lack of external nostrils, which prevents water from being forced into the head, and air sacs under the skin that cushion the seabird’s breast.


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Main image: Diving gannet in the Shetland Isles. © Chris Gomersall/NPL/Getty