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What can we learn from the way elephants walk?

Many elephants in captivity suffer with foot problems. One concern with conservationists is whether being in captivity affects animals like elephants and others in the so-called pachyderm group (such as rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses). This concern is centered on changes in walking gait, which leads to foot problems. A related area is with changes to the environment, which might affect walking style.

To study this, Professor Olga Panagiotopoulou of the University of Queensland, looked at elephants in the wild. This was a complex task, Science News reports, given the difficulties associated with tracking wild elephants.

The task was helped with local wildlife experts. For the study, the biologists trained five African elephants (Loxodonta africana), who resided in a park in South Africa, to walk over pressure-sensing platforms.

The intended use of the platforms was to map the distribution of weight on their feet. The collected information was then compared to similar tests that were carried out using Asian elephants (Elephas maximus.) The Asian elephants were housed in a zoo in England. The two sets of elephants were recorded as walking at similar speeds.

The experimental data showed that, irrespective of the environmental conditions, all elephants placed the most pressure on the outside toes of their front feet and the least pressure on their heels. Here the highest pressures were dominated by the distal ends of the lateral toes.

This means, in effect, elephants naturally walk on their tiptoes. The inference from this is that the harder the surfaces the greater effect this has on their walking posture. This raises concerns with the harder surface found in captive environments like zoos, and that such environments present a long-term risk to elephants. It is hoped that the information will aid zoo conservation work, focused on finding better surfaces to aid wandering elephants in captivity.

The findings have been reported to the journal Royal Society Open Science. The paper is titled “Foot pressure distributions during walking in African elephants (Loxodonta africana).”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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