Numerous natural processes are contingent on microorganisms’ ability to swim through fluids with non-Newtonian rheology. Here, we use the model organism Caenorhabditis elegans and tracking methods to experimentally investigate the dynamics of undulatory swimming in shear-thinning fluids. Theory and simulation have proposed that the cost of swimming, or mechanical power, should be lower in a shear-thinning fluid compared to a Newtonian fluid of the same zero-shear viscosity. We aim to provide an experimental investigation into the cost of swimming in a shear-thinning fluid from (i) an estimate of the mechanical power of the swimmer and (ii) the viscous dissipation rate of the flow field, which should yield equivalent results for a self-propelled low Reynolds number swimmer. We find the cost of swimming in shear-thinning fluids is less than or equal to the cost of swimming in Newtonian fluids of the same zero-shear viscosity; furthermore, the cost of swimming in shear-thinning fluids scales with a fluid’s effective viscosity and can be predicted using fluid rheology and simple swimming kinematics. Our results agree reasonably well with previous theoretical predictions and provide a framework for understanding the cost of swimming in generalized Newtonian fluids.
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