Postgraduate Lives: Charlotte Miller, student at the Royal Veterinary College

Walking with elephants and dinosaurs

Charlotte Miller, 24, is doing a PhD in elephant locomotion at the Royal Veterinary College

Elephants have terrible trouble with their feet. Those in captivity often get arthritis and can die early because of this; they have to be put down. The problems can be because they can't walk that far, or because they are kept on concrete. They can also get infections. All this means keepers do a lot of work on elephants' feet.

My research involves looking at the anatomy of elephants, how they walk and what causes the problems. But it's also concerned with the link between the anatomy and locomotion of elephants and that of dinosaurs. Because elephants are the largest living land animals we have, understanding their anatomy is vital in understanding that of dinosaurs. I've always been interested in the ways that animals move, and how this is affected by changes in animal shape. If elephants are big and can walk this fast, does this mean dinosaurs could go even faster? The dinosaur aspect of my research is pure science. It's a question of, what if?

I did an MSc in palaeobiology (the study of ancient organisms) at the University of Bristol, which is next door to the City Museum and Art Gallery, where my grandparents used to take me to see the fossils as a child. The MSc meant looking at living animals, but I was interested in dead animals, especially dinosaurs. Many of the consultants for the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs work at the earth sciences department at Bristol. One day I heard about a project with John Hutchinson, who has done a lot of work with Tyrannosaurus rex locomotion reconstructions. That's how I began my PhD and John is my supervisor.

I'm looking at how information from bone shape, and the size and shape of muscle attachment sites, can be used to reconstruct the shapes and movements of extinct animals such as dinosaurs. At the moment most of the work I do is with elephants in UK zoos and safari parks, but I'm hoping to go to Thailand and South Africa to work with trained working elephants in their native environments. My study has practical implications for elephant health. By studying "normal" gait and anatomy I can detect what kind of movements are characteristic of illnesses such as arthritis, and can identify potential causes for the many foot diseases seen in captive elephants.

I'm a few months into the PhD and it should take three years. When I tell people what I do they mostly don't believe me. But others think it's the coolest thing. If you'd told me even a year ago that this is what I'd be doing with my life I never would have believed you.

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