Walks with dinosaurs, pogos with elephants

November 17, 2006

John Hutchinson is one of the lucky few to fulfil his childhood dreams. The unassuming American expert in evolution and biomechanics always wanted to be a biologist, but he also flirted with the idea of breaking into Hollywood.

Now he is sought after worldwide - in academic circles, for his specialist knowledge of animal locomotion, and by film studios, for advice on how dinosaurs would have moved.

Dr Hutchinson, who is based at the Royal Veterinary College, University of London, specialises in studying how large animals stand and move. Animal locomotion is a largely under-researched field that has a huge impact on the understanding of evolution and has the potential to revolutionise robotics.

"The locomotion of vertebrates has evolved, so I'm trying to tie together the fields of evolution and biomechanics, and there aren't many people who do that. I see myself as a synthesiser, bringing things together and integrating approaches and ideas," he says.

Next month, Dr Hutchinson and a team of international experts are off to Thailand to unlock the mysteries of elephant movement with the help of a massive purpose-built force platform. Earlier this year, the team discovered that elephants bounce rather than run, using their legs like pogo sticks. The study in Thailand will help explain why elephants' feet never all leave the ground when they move and how they move from walking to running.

"The large missing piece of the puzzle was special measurements taken on a force platform.

"We're trying to tease apart the way they do whatever they're doing. The main limitation has been a technical one - getting a platform large enough for elephants," Dr Hutchinson explains. "It's really exciting because we'll know the whole story once we've done these measurements. With lots of research, you don't know until you have processed all the data, but even with the original research there were some eureka moments. There's that atmosphere of excitement there."

Elephants tackle tough terrain with ease. Working out how they move could lead to the development of vehicles that can cope in treacherous conditions, such as after flooding or an earthquake.

It is this mix of technology and biology, and the possibilities that unfold as a result, that really excite Dr Hutchinson.

"Robotic designers have a hard time building really good moving robots, and it's a hot topic for engineers to build legged robots. Wheels aren't so good with difficult surfaces. I like the applied side of things. I did not get into biology to apply it; I just did it out of curiosity - Jbut I have come to appreciate it," he explains.

Dr Hutchinson completed his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001 on the evolution of dinosaurs' anatomy and locomotion, after spending years analysing old bones.

His advisers had hinted that he would become famous if he worked out how Tyrannosaurus rex moved and so it proved after he showed, in a 2002 paper in Nature , that, far from being a fleet-footed predator, T. rex was a bit of a plodder.

"It still surprises me from time to time. Quite often I think how the hell did I get here? My family gets a big laugh out of it. I was quite a troublemaker and so now they have some redemption," he says.

After well-received talks at conferences, he was approached to advise the makers of Jurassic Park III on dinosaur movement. "They brought me to the film studios, which was a great geeking-out experience for me because it was where Star Wars was made.

"The goals of entertainment and science are often quite different, and I was aware of that, so I didn't want to dictate to them. Science has no responsibility to art to say, 'you have to be this way'. That would be pretty egotistical. But it gets risky with pseudo-documentaries," he says.

But he believes that getting the public excited about science is important, and this is one way of inspiring children so that they want to find out more.

Dr Hutchinson's own background illustrates this point well. His passion for dinosaurs stems in part from early encounters with the films of Ray Harryhausen, including the Sinbad films and Jason and the Argonauts , which are memorable for their animated monsters.

"I'm a big fan. That's one of the things I remember most about my childhood. I would be an absolute freak about monster movies," Dr Hutchinson recalls.

"For animators, Harryhausen is like Darwin. He will always be seen as one of the greats. There's something about dinosaurs that grabs the culturally embedded notion of monsters."

I GRADUATED FROM University of Wisconsin, Madison, US

MY FIRST JOB WAS taking orders from customers at a fast-food restaurant

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS being honest about ambiguity inherent in scientific models while balancing that with the need to deliver a coherent, concise message

WHAT I HATE MOST is black-and-white thinking; the inability to think outside of staid dichotomies that is responsible for many of humanity's problems

IN TEN YEARS I hope to be able to say that I've helped point the way to making the lives of captive elephants better and that I feel pretty sure how certain dinosaurs stood and moved

MY FAVOURITE JOKE Q: What do you do when you see a thousand elephants coming down a mountain slope?

A: Swim for your life!

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