Spring powered ostriches beat humans according to articles in ABC News in Science 27 October 2010 and BBC Earth News 28 October 2010.

A team of researchers led by Jonas Rubenson, of the School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health, University of Western Australia have compared how humans and ostriches run to see how much energy they need to run. To make the comparison the researchers fitted five tame ostriches with reflective markers on their joints and got them to run on a purpose built track where they were filmed. The researchers were able to measure the movement of the limbs and measure the forces generated as the birds’ feet hit the ground. They then repeated the experiment with five human subjects.

The team found ostriches and humans used nearly exactly the same amount of mechanical work to swing their limbs back and forth while running, but although ostriches and humans are similar in mass, ostriches use only half the energy compared to humans. Jonas Rubenson explained: “The difference lies in the elasticity of their joints. Ostriches generate over twice as much power from recoil of elastic energy stored in tendons than humans, which means they need less muscle power to run at the same speed. Moving with elastic limbs is akin to bouncing on a ‘pogo stick’, where you don’t have to work very hard to bounce along – so it’s all in the spring of their step.”

Rubenson suggested the study could help biologists understand the evolution of bipedalism, both in humans and in dinosaurs, and reveal more about the biological basis of agility, which will help in the development of prosthetic limbs and robots.

ABC, BBC Earth

Editorial Comment: This research will not help understand the evolution of bipedalism, as both ostriches and humans were already bipedal when this research was carried out. Furthermore, quadrupedal animals, such as horses, have also been shown to use elastic recoil in their locomotion.

However, the research findings could be very useful in developing prosthetic limbs and robots. If it is, it will be because it took creative design and intelligent understanding to carry out the research and interpret the results. It will also take creative engineering to design and build better prosthetic limbs and robots.

Evidence News 15 December 2010

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