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  • Getting from here to there

    When you watch a horse galloping, a dog running or a lizard scurrying, you don't give much thought to the mechanics of the movement. In fact, you probably don't often consider the mysteries of your own locomotion.

    But Associate Professor of Anatomy Audrone Biknevicius, who studies functional anatomy, thinks about it all the time.

    Audrone Biknevicius and Steve ReillyBy applying mechanical engineering principles to biological systems, Biknevicius and fellow researcher Steve Reilly, an associate professor of biological sciences, are looking at the evolution of locomotion in vertebrates. Their interests lie in animals that walk upright as well as sprawlers, or lizards whose limbs extend from their sides.

    While walking and running require the expense of energy with each step, large animals that are adapted for long-distance locomotion, such as humans, use what's called a pendular mechanism for walking and a spring-mass mode for running. This allows for limited energy output.

    "We are investigating whether sprawlers have the same advantage for energy saving that we know erect animals have," Biknevicius says. "With a little bit of bias, we tend to think of animals that walk upright as more advanced than sprawlers, but this may not be true."

    During walking, kinetic energy, or the energy of motion, and potential energy, the energy made available by position and height, are exchanged in a manner that resembles a pendulum. Little mechanical energy needs to be added by the muscles to continue walking. But in a runner, "strain energy" is recouped by stretching and recoiling tendons in the legs.

    Biknevicius wants to know if these mechanisms also are employed by sprawling lizards and small mammals that crouch. If so, she wants to pinpoint how these mechanisms developed through evolution. To determine this, she and Reilly send animals -- from golden retrievers to alligators -- down a runway and watch how they move.

    It's tempting to ask why we should care about animal locomotion. Biknevicius, like other researchers in the basic sciences, has a ready answer: "Working on animal locomotion does provide insight into human locomotion, but more immediately it gives us a better understanding of our companions on this planet so we can understand how this planet works."

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