The three-dimensional locomotor dynamics of African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) elephants reveal a smooth gait transition at moderate speed

Ren, L and Hutchinson, J R (2008) The three-dimensional locomotor dynamics of African (Loxodonta africana) and Asian (Elephas maximus) elephants reveal a smooth gait transition at moderate speed. JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY INTERFACE, 5 (19). pp. 195-211.

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Abstract

We examined whether elephants shift to using bouncing (i.e. running) mechanics at any speed. To do this, we measured the three-dimensional centre of mass (CM) motions and torso rotations of African and Asian elephants using a novel multisensor method. Hundreds of continuous stride cycles were recorded in the field. African and Asian elephants moved very similarly. Near the mechanically and metabolically optimal speed (a Froude number (Fr) of 0.09), an inverted pendulum mechanism predominated. With increasing speed, the locomotor dynamics quickly but continuously became less like vaulting and more like bouncing. Our mechanical energy analysis of the CM suggests that at a surprisingly slow speed (approx. 2.2 ms(-1), Fr 0.25), the hindlimbs exhibited bouncing, not vaulting, mechanics during weight support. We infer that a gait transition happens at this relatively slow speed: elephants begin using their compliant hindlimbs like pogo sticks to some extent to drive the body, bouncing over their relatively stiff, vaulting forelimbs. Hence, they are not as rigid limbed as typically characterized for graviportal animals, and use regular walking as well as at least one form of running gait.