Rhinos and robots

Rhino biomechanics may have cutting edge biomimicry applications

Most of the world’s athletes are in training right now for London 2012, the biggest test of their careers, but spare a thought for some sporting white rhinos, limbering (or should that be lumbering?) up to put their own serious training into practice all in the name of scientific research.

We met up with two of the rhinos, Cynthia and her 30 month old son Zamba, at Colchester Zoo, along with keepers Jennie Cook and Jo Roe. Like the best coaches, Jennie and Jo have painstakingly trained their charges to walk to a lure, in return for a fruity treat. It’s enabled them to lead the rhinos over special pressure pads that record the distribution of forces on their feet. We’re impressed by how easily they persuade the animals to walk through a crush and over the pads.

Zamba walks over the pressure pad

‘The pressure pad has thousands of sensors, each telling us the pressure 250 times per second,’ explains researcher John Hutchinson, who is professor of evolutionary biomechanics at the University of London’s Royal Veterinary College. ‘It enables us to relate the load on the rhinos’ feet to their anatomy. We’re trying to understand the mechanics of how animals put forces on their feet in relation to the pathology of their feet,’ he tells us.

Mechanical feet for giant robots and prosthetic limbs for injured rhinos are just two of the applied technologies that could result from this unique new research.

The primary aim of the research, to investigate the relationship between the load distribution on rhino feet and pathologies such as arthritis, could lead to improved husbandry of captive animals, and better veterinary treatment for wild rhinos. But John Hutchinson says there are also exciting possibilities in the fields of robotics and biomimicry.

He’s an expert in how large animals stand and move, having studied everything from dinosaurs to elephants. But lately it’s rhinos that have captured his attention.

Professor John Hutchinson with research subject Cynthia

John explains his studies of elephant feet revealed how their outer toes, which suffer most problems, are under the greatest pressure when walking. He also found that elephants don’t really run, but simply walk faster.

‘Anatomically, rhinos are quite different. They have a very different way of moving, more athletic, and can use all the gaits a horse can use. They have very symmetrical feet, unlike elephants, and seem to put pressure pretty evenly across their feet, which matches their pathology.’

Foot disease is one of the biggest causes of morbidity and mortality in large captive animals, but problems such as osteoarthritis or infections often don’t become apparent until the animal goes lame. ‘The earlier we can detect disease, the more we can do to prevent problems,’ John explains. ‘The goal is to develop a clinical diagnostic tool that we can use in any zoo or environment where rhinos are well-behaved. It’s entirely non-invasive, very easy to set up, and rhinos easily get used to it.’

Pressure maps of rhino feet

Knowledge gained from the research could also be applied to opportunistic veterinary treatment of foot problems in wild rhinos which have been tranquillised for other reasons, he adds.

John describes his study as ‘basic science’, but points out that there are a wide range of possible applications, beyond improved rhino husbandry. ‘Robotics and our field of locomotion have a very strong relationship. Understanding rhino biomechanics could, for example, help with designing a legged robotic vehicle with large feet, such as a forest explorer. It could also be used with prosthetics, so we could build a mechanical foot that could save an injured rhino. People have already done this with elephants in Asia, making simple prosthetics to replace feet blown off by land mines.’

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6 Comments on “Rhinos and robots”

  1. avengersphere May 22, 2012 at 9:54 pm #

    I love this. I think this type of research is so beneficial to the husbandry of animals in zoos and in the conservation of animals in the wild. I would love to see this technology applied to chimpanzees and bonobos. I am fascinated with the biomechanics of bipedality and how it evolved in hominins.

  2. Ann & Steve May 23, 2012 at 7:13 am #

    Yes, it’s fascinating, and with so many potential benefits. I’m not sure how much John has done on bipeds, I think most of his work has been with large quadrapeds, but he did mention ostriches as something he’d looked at. The team has recently received a large grant to continue their work, so it will be interesting to see how it develops further.

  3. John of the Freezers May 23, 2012 at 7:47 am #

    Thanks for the great post, Ann & Steve! And thanks, avengersphere, for your comments. We really do try to squeeze the most benefit for the animals out of our research as possible, because we should and because we care. We’ve done a lot of bird work, including on the very major problems facing broiler chickens and their walking abilities, but my group does not do any primate research (and very little on humans). However, Peter Aert’s group at Antwerp Zoo has done tons on chimps and bonobos using the same techniques, and he is working with Robin Crompton at Liverpool and others to use this to understand hominin evolution. Also, these pressure pad techniques are very widely used in a clinical setting for humans, for which the devices were first invented.

  4. zooandtell May 23, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

    Thanks for the info!

  5. zooandtell May 23, 2012 at 4:47 pm #

    Reblogged this on Zoo and Tell and commented:
    A wonderful blog on rhino conservation through science and technology.


  1. Anatomists Helping With Rhino Crisis « What's In John's Freezer? - May 23, 2012

    […] also check out this great story on our research, by Ann and Steve Toon, rhino conservationists/photographers/journalists. Share […]

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