The movements of limb segments and joints during locomotion in African and Asian elephants

Lei Ren, Melanie Butler, Charlotte Miller, Heather Paxton, Delf Schwerda, Martin S. Fischer, John R. Hutchinson*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)


As the largest extant terrestrial animals, elephants do not trot or gallop but can move smoothly to faster speeds without markedly changing their kinematics, yet with a shift from vaulting to bouncing kinetics. To understand this unusual mechanism, we quantified the forelimb and hindlimb motions of eight Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) and seven African elephants (Loxodonta africana). We used 240 Hz motion analysis (tracking 10 joint markers) to measure the flexion/extension angles and angular velocities of the limb segments and joints for 288 strides across an eightfold range of speeds (0.6-4.9 ms -1) and a sevenfold range of body mass (521-3684 kg). We show that the columnar limb orientation that elephants supposedly exemplify is an oversimplification - few segments or joints are extremely vertical during weight support (especially at faster speeds), and joint flexion during the swing phase is considerable. The 'inflexible' ankle is shown to have potentially spring-like motion, unlike the highly flexible wrist, which ironically is more static during support. Elephants use approximately 31-77% of their maximal joint ranges of motion during rapid locomotion, with this fraction increasing distally in the limbs, a trend observed in some other running animals. All angular velocities decrease with increasing size, whereas smaller elephant limbs are not markedly more flexed than adults. We find no major quantitative differences between African and Asian elephant locomotion but show that elephant limb motions are more similar to those of smaller animals, including humans and horses, than commonly recognized. Such similarities have been obscured by the reliance on the term 'columnar' to differentiate elephant limb posture from that of other animals. Our database will be helpful for identifying elephants with unusual limb movements, facilitating early recognition of musculoskeletal pathology.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2735-2751
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number17
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sep 2008


  • Biomechanics
  • Elephant
  • Gait
  • Joint
  • Kinematics
  • Locomotion
  • Proboscidea
  • Speed


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