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Biomechanical research reveals elephants move like a 4x4

Visit Royal Veterinary College website

29 March 2010

Research by a Royal Veterinary College (RVC) team, funded by BBSRC, has shown the legs of elephants work much like the wheels of a 4x4 vehicle. The discovery has disproved the theory that all four-legged animals divide the labour between front and hind legs. The legs of elephants were also found to be compliant - 'bouncy' - overturning classic assumptions that their limbs were 'pillar-like' to support their large frame.

The research, just published online in the scientific journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), has found that, like a 4X4 vehicle, all four of an elephant's legs both brake and accelerate the animal. This makes them different from most four-legged animals, which tend to use the forelegs more for braking and the hind legs for acceleration. Like all-wheel drive vehicles, elephants have eliminated this separation, something no other four-legged animal is thought to do.

An elephant with 3D motion capture imaging sensors
© John Hutchinson, Royal Veterinary College

All four elephant legs were discovered to be slightly 'bouncy', especially when running at faster speeds, rather than the rigid limbs typical of walking. The 'bouncier' legs give the animal poor leverage, which is surprising because it was thought that big animals, especially elephants, would need "pillar-like" legs to efficiently support their weight. Their leverage is about 2-3 times less than previous theory predicted from their size, and is similar to that in humans. This poor leverage makes running about 50 per cent more costly than walking and accounts for why elephants are slower than many other animals.

Dr. John Hutchinson, senior researcher on the study and Reader in Evolutionary Biomechanics in the Department of Veterinary Basic Sciences at the RVC, predicts their work will have long-lasting implications for how researchers will henceforth measure and assess the movement of other animals.

He says, "We have developed some new techniques for looking at animal movement that may change the way that we view the locomotion of other animals. Regardless, we have shown that elephant legs function in very strange and probably unique ways. We even overturned some of our own previous ideas about elephants, which is always initially disheartening but ultimately exhilarating for a scientist. Our measurements have also provided basic data that will be useful in clinical studies of elephants, such as common lameness problems."

Dr. Hutchinson's team, including first author Dr. Lei Ren, made these discoveries while measuring the forces on elephant legs from walking to running speeds. They also examined the compliance of the legs and how they support and move the body.

The team used fast and athletic elephants from the Thai Elephant Conversation Centre in Lampang, Thailand as subjects.

To measure the forces elephants exert on their environment, the researchers employed force platforms in conjunction with advanced 3D motion capture imaging to determine the elephants' movements.

The study is part of the RVC's commitment to excellence in research. As part of its commitment, the RVC runs the International Centre of Excellence for Comparative Biomechanics, undertaking world class fundamental and applied research which benefits the welfare of a wide range of animals

Elephant vs. 4x4

3000 kg 2500-3000 kg
Top speed
15 mph 110 - 130 mph
Grass, leaves and other plants Petrol or diesel
Widely-ranging across Africa and Asia The Chelsea school run

About the RVC

The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the UK's first and largest veterinary school and a constituent College of the University of London. It also provides support for veterinary and related professions through its three referral hospitals, diagnostic services and continuing professional development courses.

To request further information or an interview please contact James Godwin or Jack Melling of Mistral PR, which operates the RVC Press Office on 01235 433098. Alternatively email or


BBSRC is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life in the UK and beyond and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders, including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

BBSRC provides institute strategic research grants to the following:

  • The Babraham Institute
  • Institute for Animal Health
  • Institute for Biological, Environmental and Rural Studies (Aberystwyth University)
  • Institute of Food Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • The Genome Analysis Centre
  • The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
  • Rothamsted Research

The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

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