Animal locomotion

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A bee in flight.

Animal locomotion, which is the act of self-propulsion by an animal, has many manifestations, including running, swimming, jumping and flying. Animals move for a variety of reasons, such as to find food, a mate, or a suitable microhabitat, and to escape predators. For many animals the ability to move is essential to survival and, as a result, selective pressures have shaped the locomotion methods and mechanisms employed by moving organisms. For example, migratory animals that travel vast distances (such as the Arctic Tern) typically have a locomotion mechanism that costs very little energy per unit distance, whereas non-migratory animals that must frequently move quickly to escape predators (such as frogs) are likely to have costly but very fast locomotion. The study of animal locomotion is typically considered to be a sub-field of biomechanics.

Locomotion requires energy to overcome friction, drag, inertia, and gravity, though in many circumstances some of these factors are negligible. In terrestrial environments gravity must be overcome, though the drag of air is much less of an issue. In aqueous environments however, friction (or drag) becomes the major challenge, with gravity being less of a concern. Although animals with natural buoyancy need not expend much energy maintaining vertical position, some will naturally sink and must expend energy to remain afloat. Drag may also present a problem in flight, and the aerodynamically efficient body shapes of birds highlight this point. Flight presents a different problem from movement in water however, as there is no way for a living organism to have lower density than air. Limbless organisms moving on land must often contend with surface friction, but do not usually need to expend significant energy to counteract gravity.

Newton's third law of motion is widely used in the study of animal locomotion: if at rest, to move forwards an animal must push something backwards. Terrestrial animals must push the solid ground, swimming and flying animals must push against a fluid (either water or air).[1] The effect of forces during locomotion on the design of the skeletal system is also important, as is the interaction between locomotion and muscle physiology, in determining how the structures and effectors of locomotion enable or limit animal movement.

Locomotion in different media[edit]

Animals move through, or on, a variety of media, such as water, air, mud and the earth. Some, for example seals and otters, move through more than one type of medium. In some cases, locomotion is facilitated by the substrate on which they move. Forms of locomotion include:

Through a fluid medium[edit]


In the water staying afloat is possible through buoyancy. Provided an aquatic animal's body is no denser than its aqueous environment, it should be able to stay afloat well enough. Though this means little energy need be expended maintaining vertical position, it makes movement in the horizontal plane much more difficult. The drag encountered in water is much higher than that of air, which is almost negligible at low speeds. Body shape is therefore important for efficient movement, which is essential for basic functions like catching prey. A fusiform, torpedo-like body form is seen in many marine animals, though the mechanisms they employ for movement are diverse. Movement of the body may be from side to side, as in sharks and many fishes, or up and down, as in marine mammals. Other animals, such as those from the class Cephalopoda, use jet-propulsion, taking in water then squirting it back out in an explosive burst. Others may rely predominantly on their limbs, much as humans do when swimming. Though life on land originated from the seas, terrestrial animals have returned to an aquatic lifestyle on several occasions, such as the fully aquatic cetaceans, now far removed from their terrestrial ancestors.


Gravity is the primary obstacle to flight through the air. Because it is impossible for any organism to have a density as low as that of air, flying animals must generate enough lift to ascend and remain airborne. Wing shape is crucial in achieving this, generating a pressure gradient that results in an upward force on the animal's body. The same principle applies to airplanes, the wings of which are also airfoils. Unlike aircraft however, flying animals must be very light to achieve flight, the largest living flying animals being birds of around 20 kilograms.[2] Other structural modifications of flying animals include reduced and redistributed body weight, fusiform shape and powerful flight muscles.

Rather than fly, some animals simply reduce their rate of falling by gliding. Flight has independently evolved at least four times, in the insects, pterosaurs, birds, and bats. Gliding has evolved on many more occasions.

On a substrate[edit]


Forms of locomotion on land include walking, running, hopping or jumping, and crawling or slithering. Here friction and buoyancy are no longer an issue, but a strong skeletal and muscular framework are required in most terrestrial animals for structural support. Each step also requires much energy to overcome inertia, and animals can store elastic potential energy in their tendons to help overcome this. Balance is also required for movement on land. Human infants learn to crawl first before they are able to stand on two feet, which requires good coordination as well as physical development. Humans are bipedal animals, standing on two feet and keeping one on the ground at all times while walking. When running, only one foot is on the ground at any one time at most, and both leave the ground briefly. At higher speeds momentum helps keep the body upright, so more energy can be used in movement. The number of legs an animal has varies greatly, resulting in differences in locomotion. Many familiar mammals have four legs; insects have six, while arachnids have eight. Centipedes and millipedes have many sets of legs that move in metachronal rhythm. Some have none at all, relying on other modes of locomotion.

Other animals move in terrestrial habitats without the aid of legs. Earthworms crawl by a peristalsis, the same rhythmic contractions that propel food through the digestive tract. Snakes move using several different modes of locomotion, depending upon substrate type and desired speed. Some animals even roll, though typically not as a primary means of locomotion.

Some animals are specialized for moving on non-horizontal surfaces. One common habitat for such climbing animals is in trees, for example the gibbon is specialized for arboreal movement, traveling rapidly by brachiation. Another case is animals like the snow leopard living on steep rock faces such as are found in mountains. Some light animals are able to climb up smooth sheer surfaces or hang upside down by adhesion. Many insects can do this, though much larger animals such as geckos can also perform similar feats.

On water[edit]

While animals like ducks can swim in water by floating, some small animals move across it without breaking through the surface. This surface locomotion takes advantage of the surface tension of water. Animals that move in such a way include the water strider. Water striders have legs that are hydrophobic, preventing them from interfering with the structure of water. Another form of locomotion (in which the surface layer is broken) is used by the Basilisk lizard.

Through a solid medium[edit]

Some animals move through solids such as soil by burrowing using claws, teeth, or other methods. A burrow is a hole or tunnel dug into the ground by an animal to create a space suitable for habitation, temporary refuge, or as a byproduct of locomotion. In loose solids such a sand some animals, such as the golden mole, marsupial mole, and the pink fairy armadillo, are able to move more rapidly, 'swimming' through the loose substrate. Burrowing animals include moles, ground squirrels, naked mole rats, tilefish, mole crickets, and earthworms.


The energetics of locomotion involves the energy expenditure by animals in moving. Energy consumed in locomotion is not available for other efforts, so animals typically have evolved to use the minimum energy possible during movement. However, in the case of certain behaviors, such as locomotion to escape a predator, performance (such as speed or maneuverability) is more crucial, and such movements may be energetically expensive. Furthermore, animals may use energetically expensive methods of locomotion when environmental conditions (such as being within a tunnel) preclude other modes.

The most common metric of energy use during locomotion is net cost of transport, defined as the calories needed above baseline metabolism to move a given distance, per unit body mass. For aerobic locomotion, most animals have a nearly constant cost of transport - moving a given distance requires the same caloric expenditure, regardless of speed. This constancy is usually accomplished by changes in gait. The net cost of transport of swimming is lowest, followed by flight, with terrestrial limbed locomotion being the most expensive per unit distance.[2] However, because of the speeds involved, flight requires the most energy per unit time. This does not mean that an animal that normally moves by running would be a more efficient swimmer, however; these comparisons assume an animal is specialized for that form of motion. Another consideration here is body mass—heavier animals, though using more total energy, require less energy per unit mass to move. Physiologists generally measure energy use by the amount of oxygen consumed, or the amount of carbon dioxide produced, in an animal's respiration.[2]

Energetics is important for explaining the evolution of foraging economic decisions in organisms; for example, a study of the African honey bee, A. m. scutellata, has shown that honey bees may trade the high sucrose content of viscous nectar for the energetic benefits of warmer, less concentrated nectar, which also reduces their consumption and flight time.[3]

Methods of study[edit]

A variety of methods and equipment are used to study animal locomotion:

  • Treadmills are used to allow animals to walk or run while remaining stationary with respect to external observers. This technique facilitates filming or recordings of physiological information from the animal (e.g., during studies of energetics[4]). Motorized treadmills are also used to measure the endurance capacity (stamina) of animals.[5][6]
  • Racetracks lined with photocells or filmed while animals run along them are used to measure acceleration and maximal sprint speed.[7][8]
  • Kinematics is the study of the motion of an entire animal or parts of its body. It is typically accomplished by placing visual markers at particular anatomical locations on the animal and then recording video of its movement. The video is often captured from multiple angles, with frame rates exceeding 2000 frames per second when capturing high speed movement. The location of each marker is determined for each video frame, and data from multiple views is integrated to give positions of each point through time. Computers are sometimes used to track the markers, although this task must often be performed manually. The kinematic data can be used to determine fundamental motion attributes such as velocity, acceleration, joint angles, and the sequencing and timing of kinematic events. These fundamental attributes can be used to quantify various higher level attributes, such as the physical abilities of the animal (e.g., its maximum running speed, how steep a slope it can climb), neural control of locomotion, gait, and responses to environmental variation. These, in turn, can aid in formulation of hypotheses about the animal or locomotion in general.
  • Force plates are platforms, usually part of a trackway, that can be used to measure the magnitude and direction of forces of an animal's step. When used with kinematics and a sufficiently detailed model of anatomy, inverse dynamics solutions can determine the forces not just at the contact with the ground, but at each joint in the limb.
  • Electromyography (EMG) is a method of detecting the electrical activity that occurs when muscles are activated, thus determining which muscles are used when in a given movement. This can be accomplished either by surface electrodes (usually in large animals) or implanted electrodes (often wires thinner than a human hair). Furthermore, the intensity of electrical activity can correlate to the level of muscle activity, with greater activity implying (though not definitively showing) greater force.
  • Sonomicrometry employs a pair of piezoelectric crystals implanted in a muscle or tendon to continuously measure the length of a muscle or tendon. This is useful because surface kinematics may be inaccurate due to skin movement. Similarly, if an elastic tendon is in series with the muscle, the muscle length may not be accurately reflected by the joint angle.
  • Tendon force buckles measure the force produced by a single muscle by measuring the strain of a tendon. After the experiment, the tendon's elastic modulus is determined and used to compute the exact force produced by the muscle. However, this can only be used on muscles with long tendons.
  • Particle image velocimetry is used in aquatic and aerial systems to measure the flow of fluid around and past a moving aquatic organism, allowing fluid dynamics calculations to determine pressure gradients, speeds, etc.
  • Fluoroscopy allows real-time X-ray video, for precise kinematics of moving bones. Markers which are opaque to X-rays can allow simultaneous tracking of muscle length.

All of the methods can be combined. For example, studies frequently combine EMG and kinematics to determine "motor pattern", the series of electrical and kinematic events which produce a given movement.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Bejan, Adrian; Marden, James H. (2006). "Constructing Animal Locomotion from New Thermodynamics Theory". American Scientist 94 (4): 342–349. 
  2. ^ a b c Campbell, Neil A.; Reece, Jane B. (2005). Biology. Benjamin Cummings. ISBN 0-8053-7146-X. 
  3. ^ Nicolson, Susan; Leo de Veer, Angela Kohler, Christian W. W. Pirk (2013). "Honeybees prefer warmer nectar and less viscous nectar, regardless of sugar concentration". Proc. R. Soc. B.: 1–8. 
  4. ^ Taylor, C. Richard; Schmidt-Nielsen, Knut; Raab, J. L. (1970). "Scaling of energy cost of running to body size in mammals". American Journal of Physiology 219: 1104–1107. 
  5. ^ Garland, Jr., Theodore (1984). "Physiological correlates of locomotory performance in a lizard: an allometric approach". American Journal of Physiology 247: R806–R815. 
  6. ^ Meek, Thomas H.; Lonquich, Brian P.; Hannon, Robert M.; Garland, Jr., Theodore (2009). "Endurance capacity of mice selectively bred for high voluntary wheel running". Journal of Experimental Biology 212: 2908–2917. 
  7. ^ Huey, Raymond B.; Hertz, Paul E. (1982). "Effects of body size and slope on sprint speed of a lizard (Stellio (Agama) stellio)". Journal of Experimental Biology 97: 401–409. 
  8. ^ Huey, Raymond B.; Hertz, Paul E. (1984). "Effects of body size and slope on acceleration of a lizard (Stellio stellio)". Journal of Experimental Biology 110: 113–123. 

Further reading[edit]

  • McNeill Alexander, Robert. (2003) Principles of Animal Locomotion. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. ISBN 0-691-08678-8

External links[edit]