The evolution of a single hairpin vortex-like structure in the mean turbulent field of a low-Reynolds-number channel flow is studied by direct numerical simulation. The structure of the initial three-dimensional vortex is extracted from the two-point spatial correlation of the velocity field by linear stochastic estimation given a second-quadrant ejection event vector. Initial vortices having vorticity that is weak relative to the mean vorticity evolve gradually into omega-shaped vortices that persist for long times and decay slowly. As reported in Zhou, Adrian & Balachandar (1996), initial vortices that exceed a threshold strength relative to the mean flow generate new hairpin vortices upstream of the primary vortex. The detailed mechanisms for this upstream process are determined, and they are generally similar to the mechanisms proposed by Smith et al. (1991), with some notable differences in the details. It has also been found that new hairpins generate downstream of the primary hairpin, thereby forming, together with the upstream hairpins, a coherent packet of hairpins that propagate coherently. This is consistent with the experimental observations of Meinhart & Adrian (1995). The possibility of autogeneration above a critical threshold implies that hairpin vortices in fully turbulent fields may occur singly, but they more often occur in packets. The hairpins also generate quasi-streamwise vortices to the side of the primary hairpin legs. This mechanism bears many similarities to the mechanisms found by Brooke & Hanratty (1993) and Bernard, Thomas & Handler (1993). It provides a means by which new quasi-streamwise vortices, and, subsequently, new hairpin vortices can populate the near-wall layer.
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