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Journal of Experimental Biology

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For centuries, elephant locomotion has been a contentious and confusing challenge for locomotion scientists to understand, not only because of technical difficulties but also because elephant locomotion is in some ways atypical of more familiar quadrupedal gaits. We analyzed the locomotor kinematics of over 2400 strides from 14 African and 48 Asian elephant individuals (body mass 116-4632 kg) freely moving over ground at a 17-fold range of speeds, from slow walking at 0.40 m s-1 to the fastest reliably recorded speed for elephants, 6.8 m s-1. These data reveal that African and Asian elephants have some subtle differences in how size-independent kinematic parameters change with speed. Although elephants use a lateral sequence footfall pattern, like many other quadrupeds, they maintain this footfall pattern at all speeds, shifting toward a 25% phase offset between limbs (singlefoot) as they increase speed. The duty factors of elephants are greater for the forelimbs than for the hindlimbs, so an aerial phase for the hindquarters is reached at slower speeds than for the forequarters. This aerial phase occurs at a Froude number of around 1, matching theoretical predictions. At faster speeds, stance and swing phase durations approach asymptotes, with the duty factor beginning to level off, concurrent with an increase in limb compliance that likely keeps peak forces relatively low. This increase of limb compliance is reflected by increased compression of the hindlimbs. Like other tetrapods, smaller elephants are relatively more athletic than larger ones, but still move very similarly to adults even at <500 kg. At any particular speed they adopt greater relative stride frequencies and relative stride lengths compared to larger elephants. This extends to near-maximal locomotor performance as well - smaller elephants reach greater Froude numbers and smaller duty factors, hence likely reach relatively greater peak loads on their limbs and produce this force more rapidly. A variety of lines of kinematic evidence support the inference that elephants change their mechanics near a Froude number of 1 (if not at slower speeds), at least to using more compliant limbs, if not spring-like whole-body kinetics. In some ways, elephants move similarly to many other quadrupeds, such as increasing speed mainly by increasing stride frequency (except at fast speeds), and they match scaling predictions for many stride parameters. The main difference from most other animals is that elephants never change their footfall pattern to a gait that uses a whole-body aerial phase. Our large dataset establishes what the normal kinematics of elephant locomotion are, and can also be applied to identify gait abnormalities that may signal musculoskeletal pathologies, a matter of great importance to keepers of captive elephants.


This is a post-print version of this article. The version of record is available at the Journal of Experimental Biology via