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

paint. They videotaped 188 trials of 42 Asian elephants walking and running through a 100-foot course and measured their speed with photosensors and video analysis.

The average walking speed was 4.5 mph. But 32 of the elephants moved faster than previously documented - up to 15 mph. Three were especially fleet of foot, exceeding 15 mph - 50 percent faster than anyone had ever reliably recorded, Hutchinson said.

Past references gave anecdotes, not data. The result was a lot of confusion about elephant speeds.

"The vast majority of statements regarding the maximum speed of African elephants descend from one of two apocryphal hunches dating back over 60 years," Famini wrote in an e-mail.

Said Hutchinson: "Here we actually have the videotape and data to back it up, whereas with an anecdote, like some big game hunter clocking an elephant with a speedometer on a car, it's just not reliable."

Seeing was believing - these elephants were fast. "When I saw the speed trap times and videos I was convinced," Kram wrote in an e-mail. "I ran the mile in 4:30 when I was in high school and I am still a competitive Master's runner. I can only just barely sprint as fast as the fastest elephants we measured."

To run or not to run - that is still the question

So what turns a walk into a run? It isn't just speed, although that plays a part.

Kinematically, one thing that distinguishes walking from running is the footfall pattern. Typical quadrupeds use a walk at slow speeds, a trot at medium speeds and a gallop at fast speeds.

In the footfall pattern of a trot, diagonal limbs contact the ground at the same time. "So a quadruped goes left hind, right front together and then right hind, left front together," Hutchinson explained. "It's acting like a biped."

In contrast, in the footfall pattern of a gallop, the two hindlimbs touch the ground one after the other, followed by a pause, after which the two fo
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Contact: Dawn Levy
dawnlevy@stanford.edu
650-725-1944
Stanford University
2-Apr-2003


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