Dr John Hutchinson, a research leader at the UK’s Royal Veterinary College (RVC), has already shown that, contrary to previous studies and most popular opinion, elephants moving at speed appear to be running. Now with funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) his team is using Hollywood-style motion capture cameras combined with MRI and CT scans of elephants to build 3D computer models of elephant locomotion to show the forces and stresses at work on muscles, tendons and bones.
The research team has been working with elephants at UK wildlife and safari parks and will shortly travel to Africa and Thailand to study wild animals. Fifteen temporary markers are placed on the elephants’ joints and the animals then move past a motion capture camera, recording at 240 frames per second, at varying speeds. Back in the lab the researchers can then use the footage to reconstruct the rotations of the elephants’ joints on a computer, creating a 3D stick model of the animal.
The computer models are being used to establish how limb structure relates to elephant locomotion and to determine finally if elephants really can run – or in scientific terms, at some point do they have all their feet off the ground at the same time? Dr Hutchinson said: “We are particularly interested how elephants coordinate their limbs and working out which joints contribute most to the length and frequency of their steps. In examining whether elephants truly run or not we need to understand what limits their top speed. Is it the tendons and muscles having to withstand the impact of 7 tonnes of elephant or is it something else?”
Read the whole thing. I love this kind of stuff! I remember when, back in the late 1980s, I first saw a study (from Bulgaria, I believe) done like this – of a horse jumping over a fence. Way cool!
Next step – how do elephants fly! Certainly you’ve heard the old true-life anecdote:
Two elephants are sitting on a tree. A third elephant flies by. The first elephant turns to the second elephant and says: “Hmmm, I bet her nest is close by”