In this paper, we report experimental results concerning a three-dimensional short-wave instability observed in a pair of equal co-rotating vortices. The pair is generated in water by impulsively started plates, and is analysed through dye visualizations and detailed quantitative measurements using particle image velocimetry. The instability mode, which is found to be stationary in the rotating frame of reference of the two-vortex system, consists of internal deformations of the vortex cores, which are characteristic of the elliptic instability occurring in strained vortical flows. Measurements of the spatial structure, wavelengths and growth rates are presented, as functions of Reynolds number and non-dimensional core size. The self-induced rotation of the vortex pair, which is not a background rotation of the entire flow, is found to lead to a shift of the unstable wavelength band to higher values, as well as to higher growth rates. In addition, a dramatic increase in the width of the unstable bands for large values of the rescaled core radius is found. Comparisons with recent theoretical results by Le Dizés & Laporte (2002) concerning elliptic instability of co-rotating vortices show very good agreement.
At later stages of the flow, when the perturbation amplitude becomes sufficiently large, the two vortices merge into a single structure. This happens for smaller cores sizes than in the case of two-dimensional merging. The three-dimensional merging leads to a final vortex characterized by turbulent small-scale motion, whose size appears to be larger than it would have been without instability. The vorticity profile of the final vortex is non-Gaussian after both two-dimensional and three-dimensional merging. The profile contains more vorticity outside the inner core than a Gaussian vortex, resulting from the ejection of vorticity filaments during the merging stage.