Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) have shown the legs of elephants work much like the wheels of a 4×4 vehicle, disproving the previously held theory that all four-legged animals divide the labour between front and hind legs.

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) have shown the legs of elephants work much like the wheels of a 4×4 vehicle, disproving the previously held theory that all four-legged animals divide the labour between front and hind legs.
 
RVC researchers say the legs of elephants work much like the wheels of a 4x4 vehicleThe research, funded by the BBSRC and published online in the US scientific journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), has found that, like a 4×4 vehicle, all four of an elephant’s legs both brake and accelerate the animal.
 
This finding has overturned the classic assumption that all four-legged animals divide the labour between their legs, using the forelegs more for braking and the hindlegs for acceleration. Like all-wheel drive vehicles, elephants have eliminated this separation, something no other four-legged animal is thought to do.
 
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% more costly than walking and accounts for why elephants are slower than many other animals.
 
Advanced 3D motion capture  imaging was used to determine the elephants' movementsThe team, headed by John Hutchinson (reader in evolutionary biomechanics in the Department of Veterinary Basic Sciences at the RVC), made the 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 Conservation 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.
 
Dr Hutchinson claims this new information could have long-lasting implications for how researchers measure and assess the movement of other animals.
 
He said: “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.”

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