Elephants' legs 'work like wheels of 4x4s'

Elephants have legs that work like the wheels of a Land Rover, scientists have found.

The "four-leg-drive" system means power is applied independently to each limb.

All other four-footed animals are thought to be designed with "rear-leg-drive". They tend to accelerate with the hind limbs while using their forelegs more for braking.

Study leader Dr John Hutchinson, from the Royal Veterinary College, London, said: "We have developed some new techniques for looking at animal movement that may change the way that we view the locomotion of other animals.

"We have shown that elephant legs function in very strange and probably unique ways. We even overturned some of our own previous ideas about elephants, which is always initially disheartening but ultimately exhilarating for a scientist.

"Our measurements have also provided basic data that will be useful in clinical studies of elephants, such as common lameness problems."

It used to be thought that all four-legged animals divide labour between their legs, using forelegs more for braking and hind legs for acceleration.

But this was found not to be true of elephants. Measurements of forces on the animals' legs at walking and running speeds showed that each limb was used both for accelerating and braking.

Elephants' legs were also shown to be slightly compliant or "bouncy", especially when running at faster speeds.

Experts had previously assumed elephants would need rigid "pillar-like" legs to support their weight. Bounciness made their legs two to three times less mechanically efficient than expected, putting them on a par with those of humans.

Just as in humans, muscle forces in elephants have to increase as their limbs become more flexed. Consequently running is 50% more costly than walking, which is why elephants are slower than many other animals.

The scientists wrote in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: "Surprisingly, elephants use their forelimbs and hindlimbs in similar braking and propulsive roles, not dividing these functions among limbs as was previously assumed or as in other quadrupeds.

"Thus, their limb function is analogous to four-wheel-drive vehicles. To achieve the observed limb compliance and low peak forces, elephants synchronise their limb dynamics in the vertical direction, but incur considerable mechanical costs from limbs working against each other horizontally."

The researchers analysed the movements of six juvenile Asian elephants using an advanced 3D motion-capture technique.

Reflective markers placed at strategic points on the elephants' bodies were filmed by seven infrared cameras and their changes in position fed into a computer.

The elephants were ridden or guided by their "mahouts" across their whole range of speeds along a walkway rigged with force-sensitive platforms.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Professional Sales Trainee - B2B

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: First things first - for the av...

Recruitment Genius: Compliance Manager

£40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Compliance Manager is require...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Services Representative

£15500 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This international company deve...

Recruitment Genius: Field Service Engineer - Basingstoke / Reading Area

£16000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established name in IT Ser...

Day In a Page

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

One day to find €1.6bn

Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

Historians map out untold LGBT histories

Public are being asked to help improve the map
Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
Paris Fashion Week

Paris Fashion Week

Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
A year of the caliphate:

Isis, a year of the caliphate

Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?
Marks and Spencer: Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?

Marks and Spencer

Can a new team of designers put the spark back into the high-street brand?
'We haven't invaded France': Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak

'We haven't invaded France'

Italy's Prime Minister 'reclaims' Europe's highest peak
Isis in Kobani: Why we ignore the worst of the massacres

Why do we ignore the worst of the massacres?

The West’s determination not to offend its Sunni allies helps Isis and puts us all at risk, says Patrick Cockburn
7/7 bombings 10 years on: Four emergency workers who saved lives recall the shocking day that 52 people were killed

Remembering 7/7 ten years on

Four emergency workers recall their memories of that day – and reveal how it's affected them ever since
Humans: Are the scientists developing robots in danger of replicating the hit Channel 4 drama?

They’re here to help

We want robots to do our drudge work, and to look enough like us for comfort. But are the scientists developing artificial intelligence in danger of replicating the TV drama Humans?
Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

Time to lay these myths about the Deep South to rest

'Heritage' is a loaded word in the Dixie, but the Charleston killings show how dangerous it is to cling to a deadly past, says Rupert Cornwell
What exactly does 'one' mean? Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue

What exactly does 'one' mean?

Court of Appeal passes judgement on thorny mathematical issue