Elephants prove they’re flexible friends
Tuesday 16 September 2008
A study among the Asian elephant herd at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo has shown that elephants are not as rigid and inflexible as once thought. In fact they can easily 'bend it like Beckham' when they feel like it!
The Royal Veterinary College’s John Hutchinson wanted to probe the historical myth – dating back as far as Shakespeare and even Aristotle – which said elephants walked on inflexible column-like legs.
Observing elephants at Whipsnade, other UK zoos and in Thailand, he used 3-D capture technology and infrared equipment to film the elephants’ steps as they walked and ran in front of the cameras. The animals were fantastically co-operative, said Hutchinson, to walk and run while tiny stickers were strategically placed on their fore and hind limbs.
Assistant curator and head of the elephant team Lee Sambrook said: 'The elephants did not take any notice of the stickers, they just carried on as normal.'
Hutchinson, with colleagues Lei Ren and Charlotte Miller also travelled to Thailand to film racing elephants. Back in the lab all the different elephant movements were converted into stick figures.
The study found that elephant’s movements 'are not as columnar as previously thought, with the shoulder, hip, knee and elbow joints flexing significantly'. They were able to bend their front wrist joints by more than 80 degrees when they swung their front legs forward, flicking their feet.
The elephants ankles were rigid at this point. But the reverse happened when the feet were on the ground, when the ankle was 'relatively spring-like' and the flexible front wrist joint became rigid to support the elephants’ weight.
Work by Heather Paxton for the study found that the elephants were using almost all of their mobility range. When the team looked at the comparison with horses, they found that 'elephants' joints were almost as mobile as trotting horses', which contradicts scientific ideas that horse and elephant leg flexibility are very different.
The study also looked at comparisons with the Thai elephants and the zoo-bred animals and found that whilst the native elephants were faster on their feet, captivity 'had not modified the elephants’ mobility range, just slowed them down a little'.
At ZSL Whipsnade Zoo keepers frequently witness their animals flexibility. For enrichment the youngsters enjoy a kick-about with giant pilates balls and young Leelee is catching up on big half-brother Euan with her footballing skills.
The elephants are also taken on daily walk of approximately 2.5 miles around the zoo and to munch on grass and branches and they are free to roam around their seven acre paddock as well as enjoy further enrichment activities in the nearby sandpit.