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The study of locomotion, the science of how animals move, is rather intimidating to the ordinary person. Not so long ago, whether elephants could run or not was thought to be a simple question of whether they changed gait (footfall pattern), shifting from a walk to a trot or gallop. Today, however, reading a scientific paper on locomotion is much like reading about physics or engineering, full of terms like 'energetics', 'biomechanics', and 'kinematics'.

How elephants move nonetheless remains scientifically very important because as the largest land animal they embody the constraints of large body size, which influence many aspects of biology. Gravity increasingly limits animal behavior as size increases. The Thai Elephant Conservation Center is thus proud to have participated in the most comprehensive studies of elephant locomotion ever conducted.

Dr John Hutchinson, now at the Royal Veterinary College's Structure and Motion Laboratory (England), has brought three teams to Thailand. (Much of Hutchinson's work, including PDFs of papers, photographs, and videos can be found at his lab's website. In a 2003 study in Nature we showed that even at top speed elephants always have at least one foot firmly planted on the ground, proving that elephants cannot jump. We also recorded by far the most accurate times for 'running' including a surprisingly fast speed of 24 kph (15 mph). Paradoxically, the same research also proved that elephants don't trot, gallop, or use other normal 'running' gaits. The paradox arises because elephants at high speed showed other strong signs of running ('bouncing', in a biomechanical sense) in modern scientific terms.

To try to settle the mystery, in 2006 Dr. Hutchinson was joined by Dr Norman Heglund and his team from the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium). In a four-month blitz, the teams employed two high-tech testing tools. First, they used seven Qualisys infrared motion analysis cameras to measure elephant motions in 3D; working at 250 pictures/second, these cameras are the same as used for motion capture in the latest Hollywood blockbusters. (These cameras are so sensitive they could only be used at dawn and dusk.) Second, they used 16 force platforms buried in the ground and arrayed as a single unit. Functioning as a super sophisticated scale measuring force instead of weight, this platform measured elephant limb forces in 3D, 'charting' how elephants move.

While it is elephants moving at full speed that grabs immediate attention, the study measured 33 elephants throughout their speed range. The two teams made several fascinating discoveries:

  • Elephant limbs have surprisingly poor leverage for their size, about 1/3 that predicted by previous studies. Thus, elephant muscles must work exceptionally hard to produce enough force to walk, much less to run. Low leverage helps to explain why elephants cannot change gait and why they cannot run very fast or for very long.

  • Surprisingly, unlike other animals, elephant limbs work like the wheels of four-wheel drive vehicles, with all legs both propelling and braking the animals. Other species already measured virtually always use their front legs more for braking and hind legs more for propulsion. The more equal division of duties in elephants probably gives them a smoother ride than they would otherwise have, minimizing the stress on bones and muscles.

  • Elephant legs, which had been thought to be very rigid and columnar or pillar-like, actually bend and rebound slightly with each step.

View Dr. Hutchinson's team's paper in a PDF file.

View Dr. Heglund's team's paper in a PDF file.

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