Film reveals how elephants get balletic

By David Robson Video: A new animation show how elephants move their feet when they walk and run They may not look much like ballerinas, but elephants are more nimble-footed than their hefty frames suggest. Most biologists had assumed that elephants walk with relatively straight legs, with stiff ankles and flat feet. “They have so much skin, muscle and flesh, it’s hard to even see the joints from the outside,” says John Hutchinson from the Royal Veterinary College in London, UK. To investigate how elephants move, Hutchinson and his team, which included researchers from the University of Jena in Germany, filmed 15 African and Asian elephants with infrared-reflecting tape stuck to 10 key joints on their bodies. Computer software then tracked the motion of the reflective markers to build 3D models of how the elephants’ skeletons moved underneath their thick skin. The models reveal that although elephants tend to walk on the flat of their feet, they also roll from their heels to their toes while running, just like humans. The ankles on the back legs act like a spring, propelling them forward. The result is very different from the straight-legged march previous observations had suggested. “When they walk slowly the legs are fairly straight, but as they get faster the joints are more bent, so their posture is more crouched,” says Hutchinson. Overall, the work reveals that elephant joints are just as flexible as a trotting horse’s. Elephants have a tendency to develop arthritis and other problems with their joints, so Hutchinson hopes that vets could use a similar method to detect whether an elephant is walking with an abnormal gait. Because of their large bulk, studies of elephants are often used to predict the way that dinosaurs would have moved, so this work may be used to improve the accuracy of those simulations. Journal reference: Journal of Experimental Biology (vol 211, p 2735) More on these topics:
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