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: Prized sea snail not at risk of extinction, federal officials say

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Nature offers video of 10 cutest animals of 2014

Dec 18, 2014

(Phys.org)—The journal Nature has released a video that ventures a bit from its traditional strictly-science approach to technical journalism—it's all about the cutest animal stories of the past year ( ...

DNA sheds light on why largest lemurs disappeared

Dec 16, 2014

Ancient DNA extracted from the bones and teeth of giant lemurs that lived thousands of years ago in Madagascar may help explain why the giant lemurs went extinct. It also explains what factors make some surviving ...

Genes tell story of birdsong and human speech

Dec 11, 2014

His office is filled with all sorts of bird books, but Duke neuroscientist Erich Jarvis didn't become an expert on the avian family tree because of any particular interest in our feathered friends. Rather, ...

Recommended for you

Keep dogs and cats safe during winter

Dec 27, 2014

(HealthDay)—Winter can be tough on dogs and cats, but there are a number of safe and effective ways you can help them get through the cold season, an expert says.

Scientists target mess from Christmas tree needles

Dec 26, 2014

The presents are unwrapped. The children's shrieks of delight are just a memory. Now it's time for another Yuletide tradition: cleaning up the needles that are falling off your Christmas tree.

Top Japan lab dismisses ground-breaking stem cell study

Dec 26, 2014

Japan's top research institute on Friday hammered the final nail in the coffin of what was once billed as a ground-breaking stem cell study, dismissing it as flawed and saying the work could have been fabricated.

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.