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

ve in a certain amount of time, it may still scurry with greater relative speed than a charging elephant.

"At the same Froude number, any animal, regardless of size, should be moving with the same mechanism," Hutchinson said. "It should be exerting itself in relatively the same way." A Froude number of 0.01 is slow for any animal; a Froude number of 20, fast. Most animals should switch from a walk to a run at about the same Froude number, at 0.5 or so, he said. Animals shift from a walk to a run because at faster speeds walking becomes less energetically efficient, or more mechanically stressful, than running, he said.

"The stunning thing about our elephants is they were going at a Froude number as fast as 3.4, which is over three times the dimensionless speed that an elephant should be switching from walking to running," Hutchinson said. "A horse would be well into a gallop by this point. But the elephants were still using a walking footfall pattern."

If you think of the body abstractly as just a stick swinging back and forth as it moves, he explained, its center of mass moves differently during walking compared to running. "Walking is a stiff, pendulum-like gait; the limb stays pretty straight and swings back and forth. Running is a bouncing gait in which the limb actually compresses and bounces back with a spring."

The researchers' kinematic measurements suggest that fast-moving elephants may switch from a pendulum-like gait to a bouncing gait. If they do, they fit the biomechanical definition for running.

But there's only one way to find out for sure. The animals would have to move across a force platform - a special device that registers the forces that elephants exert on the ground - to see if their center of mass swings like an inverted pendulum (as in walking) or bounces like a spring (running).

"That's a problem because the force platforms that are generally available would break if an elephant ran across them
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Contact: Dawn Levy
dawnlevy@stanford.edu
650-725-1944
Stanford University
2-Apr-2003


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