Biomechanical research reveals elephants move like a 4x4
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.
© 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|
|15 mph||110 - 130 mph|
|Grass, leaves and other plants||Petrol or diesel|
|Widely-ranging across Africa and Asia||The Chelsea school run|
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- Institute of Food Research
- John Innes Centre
- The Genome Analysis Centre
- The Roslin Institute (University of Edinburgh)
- Rothamsted Research
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