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Speedy elephants use a biomechanical trick to 'run' like Groucho

gy at the University of Colorado-Boulder. They focused on an extant biggie rather than an extinct one: the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus), which can tip the scales at more than 4 tons.

From Africa USA to Thailand

In 1997, Hutchinson, Kram and Famini were all at UC-Berkeley. Kram, the first with colleagues at Harvard to measure the rate of oxygen consumption in walking elephants, was advising Hutchinson and Famini about "normal" elephant biomechanics during the duo's kinematic experiments with African elephants at Six Flags Marine World in Vallejo, Calif. Earlier, Kram had noted that elephants preferred to walk at a slow but efficient speed that gave them what he called the "best gas mileage."

Hutchinson began to correspond with Lair, the author of Gone Astray: The Care and Management of the Asian Elephant in Domesticity, published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 1997. Once an elephant trainer at Marine World/Africa USA in Redwood City, Calif., before the park relocated to Vallejo, Lair moved to Thailand in 1980 to help save Asian elephants from extinction. He has trained Asian elephants for films, notably Disney's Operation Dumbo Drop, and now works at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center, which provided crucial support for the Nature study.

"[Hutchinson asked] if I thought Thai elephants could run faster than the speeds he and Dan had got from U.S. zoo and circus elephants [about 10 mph]," recalled Lair in an e-mail interview. "I said that I knew they could because I had timed them much faster at the Surin Elephant Round-up in northeast Thailand in 1984."

Thanks to a traveling fellowship from the Journal of Experimental Biology, Hutchinson and Famini went to Thailand in 2000 and 2001 to put some elephants to the test.

For their experiments, Hutchinson palpated the animals' limbs to find their joints, and then the duo marked the joints with large dots of water-soluble, nontoxic
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Contact: Dawn Levy
dawnlevy@stanford.edu
650-725-1944
Stanford University
2-Apr-2003


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