The Kingfisher and the bullet train – In the news

Zoe E, Elwood College


The Shinkansen bullet trains in Japan were conceived in the early 1900s as a means of high-speed travel. They succeeded in their job, however, due to travelling at 200 miles per hour (about 320 kph), they generated noise levels that could be heard 400 metres away. This was due to changes in air resistance when the trains entered tunnels creating low-frequency atmospheric pressure waves. To function effectively without creating so much noise, the Shinkansen trains needed a structural redesign that would allow them to deal with abrupt changes in air resistance around them.

Stork-billed-KingfisherThe kingfisher bird is one that eats fish, and therefore has to be unnoticed by its swift-moving prey. To make this possible, kingfishers have long, pointed, wedge-shaped beaks and heads, limiting water disruption and noise production so as to keep prey unaware. If they had rounder beaks, the birds would push water ahead of their beaks and alert fish.

Tests showed that objects shaped like the kingfisher’s beak created less pressure waves, and this was therefore the perfect design for the Shinkansen trains. The new kingfisher beak style trains produce 30% less air pressure, use 15% less electricity and are 10% faster. The drop in air pressure not only makes the trains quieter, but more comfortable for passengers. The Shinkansen trains are some of the fastest and largest in the world, and it’s interesting to think that they are based on the adaptations of one small bird.


Asknatureorg. (2016). BEAK PROVIDES STREAMLINING: COMMON KINGFISHER. Retrieved 17 May, 2016, from http://www.asknature.org/strategy/4c3d00f23cae38c1d23517b6378859ee

Wikipedia. (2016). Shinkansen. Retrieved 17 May, 2016, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen


The article above is one of the winning entries of GTAC's Biomimicry Blog competition. The competition challenged Victorian students to submit a blog article detailing an example of scientific and mathematical advances that were inspired by nature. Click here for more information.