With their awkward, lumbering gait, elephants moving at high speed are not the most graceful of animals – but are they walking or running?
Now scientists believe they have an answer: new research confirms that they do both – at the same time.
By observing elephants moving across a hi-tech track, the team found the hefty creatures run with their front legs but walk with their back legs.
The research is published in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
Earlier research had suggested that elephants perform a strange, part-walk/part-run while travelling at speed.
But a team from Belgium, Italy and Thailand was able to investigate this further by using a specially built track that was able to precisely measure the forces exerted with each weighty elephant step.
Professor Norman Heglund, an author of the paper from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, told BBC News: “We had to build the plates – you just can’t go down to your local hardware shop and pick up an elephant-sized force plate.”
Armed with these, the researchers headed to the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre to study the big beasts, which ranged from an 870kg baby to a four tonne adult.
The Asian elephants were encouraged to move across the track, at speed, by their keepers – or mahouts – who rode on their backs (in the conservation centre, the elephants, which were rescued from the forest industry, are paired with their mahouts for life).
The fastest elephant reached 18km per hour (11mph).
They were also filmed using high-speed cameras. …
As well as confirming high-speed movements, the team also used the pressure plates to find out that elephants were also extremely economical with their movements, especially compared with smaller animals.
The scientists now plan to look at other large animals, such as hippos and rhinos, to find out if they run or walk.
From the video of an elephant “running” it looks like even a fast elephant will always have two feet on the ground. And now that we know this about elephants, we can … uh… why did they want to know this?