Elephants can’t jump

19 March 2010

 Eadweard Muybridge, An elephant walking, 1887. Wellcome Images
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Eadweard Muybridge, An elephant walking, 1887. Wellcome Images

Where do you hide when you measure the footprint of an elephant? Behind some hefty iron bars at Whipsnade Zoo, as it turns out. In the latest episode of our Packed Lunch podcast, Daniel Glaser talks to John Hutchinson, a biologist who specialises in modelling the gaits of large animals, from dinosaurs to elephants. Hutchinson was the scientist who exposed T Rex as a slowcoach in a paper in Nature in 2002.

Hutchinson’s work draws on both biology and mechanical engineering, and his interest in dinosaurs is less in digging up bones than in thinking about their musculo-skeletal movements. He reveals that Jurassic Park-style animation software has less to do with how dinosaurs might have walked than how their animators want them to walk. We also find out that although elephants do run, compressing their leg muscles to ‘bounce’ with released energy as humans do, as this image by Eadweard Muybridge reveals, they never leave the ground with all four feet.