Have you ever seen an elephant... run?

Aug 18, 2006
Have you ever seen an elephant... run?
A young elephant steps out at Whipsnade Wild Animal Park while cameras record the movement of the disc shaped markers on its legs and back. (Images: John Hutchinson).

If an elephant is thundering towards you at 15mph you are probably not too concerned with the finer points of biomechanics or the thorny question about whether they are truly running or not. But for researchers, understanding these points and getting a clearer picture of how elephants move their seven tonnes of bulk at speed offers the potential to improve animal welfare, inform human biomechanics and even help in the design of large robots.

Dr John Hutchinson, a research leader at the UK's Royal Veterinary College (RVC), has already shown that, contrary to previous studies and most popular opinion, elephants moving at speed appear to be running. Now with funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) his team is using Hollywood-style motion capture cameras combined with MRI and CT scans of elephants to build 3D computer models of elephant locomotion to show the forces and stresses at work on muscles, tendons and bones.

The research team has been working with elephants at UK wildlife and safari parks and will shortly travel to Africa and Thailand to study wild animals. Fifteen temporary markers are placed on the elephants' joints and the animals then move past a motion capture camera, recording at 240 frames per second, at varying speeds. Back in the lab the researchers can then use the footage to reconstruct the rotations of the elephants' joints on a computer, creating a 3D stick model of the animal.

The computer models are being used to establish how limb structure relates to elephant locomotion and to determine finally if elephants really can run – or in scientific terms, at some point do they have all their feet off the ground at the same time? Dr Hutchinson said: "We are particularly interested how elephants coordinate their limbs and working out which joints contribute most to the length and frequency of their steps. In examining whether elephants truly run or not we need to understand what limits their top speed. Is it the tendons and muscles having to withstand the impact of 7 tonnes of elephant or is it something else?"

This is not a trivial question as Dr Hutchinson explained: "A better understanding of elephant biomechanics offers the possibility for real animal welfare improvements. By developing ways to spot slight changes in gait and joint movements in captive elephants we can catch the early onset of osteomyelitis and arthritis. If these conditions are not treated early they can result in an elephant being put down."

The research also informs other biomechanical studies as the elephant leg has surprising similarities to our own. Humans have the same structure of a straight leg with a long thigh and short foot. Studies of animal locomotion are also key to the design of effective walking robots. By understanding how evolution achieved the joint structure and limb coordination of an animal as large as an elephant we will be better able to construct our own man-made walking robots.

Source: Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

Explore further: Season's first dolphins killed in Japan, say activists

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Life on Earth still favours evolution over creationism

Sep 11, 2014

Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution, first published in 1859, offered a bold new explanation for how animals and plants diversified and still serves as the foundation underpinning all medical and biological ...

Sloths are no slouches when it comes to evolution

Sep 10, 2014

Today's sloths might be known as slow, small animals, but their ancestors developed large body sizes at an amazing rate, according to an evolutionary reconstruction published today in the open access journal ...

Mosquito fact and fiction

Sep 10, 2014

One of Jason Pitts' favorite stories is about mosquitoes and their strange attraction to Limburger cheese.

New species of titanosaurian dinosaur found in Tanzania

Sep 08, 2014

Ohio University paleontologists have identified a new species of titanosaurian, a member of the large-bodied sauropods that thrived during the final period of the dinosaur age, in Tanzania. Although many ...

Recommended for you

Scientists given rare glimpse of 350-kilo colossal squid

21 minutes ago

Scientists said Tuesday a female colossal squid weighing an estimated 350 kilograms (770 lbs) and thought to be only the second intact specimen ever found was carrying eggs when discovered in the Antarctic.

Scientists discover tropical tree microbiome in Panama

13 hours ago

Human skin and gut microbes influence processes from digestion to disease resistance. Despite the fact that tropical forests are the most biodiverse terrestrial ecosystems on the planet, more is known about ...

User comments : 0