The art of modelling the physical world lies in the appropriate simplification and abstraction of the complete problem. In fluid mechanics, the Navier–Stokes equations provide a model that is valid under most circumstances germane to animal locomotion, but the complexity of solutions provides strong incentive for the development of further, more simplified practical models. When the flow organizes itself so that all shearing motions are collected into localized patches, then various mathematical vortex models have been very successful in predicting and furthering the physical understanding of many flows, particularly in aerodynamics. Experimental models have the significant added convenience that the fluid mechanics can be generated by a real fluid, not a model, provided the appropriate dimensionless groups have similar values. Then, analogous problems can be encountered in making intelligible but independent descriptions of the experimental results. Finally, model predictions and experimental results may be compared if, and only if, numerical estimates of the likely variations in the tested quantities are provided. Examples from recent experimental measurements of wakes behind a fixed wing and behind a bird in free flight are used to illustrate these principles.