Can Elephants Run? Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Can Elephants Run?

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An elephant on a running track wearing trainers!

In the Disney film Dumbo, the crows sang a song to ridicule the super-lobed youngster, entitled 'When I See an Elephant Fly'. We all know this is a ridiculous concept, but believe it or not, it's not much more unlikely than 'when I see an elephant jump'.

'I can jump higher than an elephant/house/tree',
'No you can't',
'Oh yes I can, because elephants/houses/trees can't jump.'

- Old children's joke

But Can Elephants Run?

There are many definitions of the word 'run', but the one to which is referred to here is the one regarding the forward movement of animals, which states:

Run - said of a person or an animal: to move at a pace quicker than walking and in such a way that both or all feet are off the ground together for an instant during part of each step.
Run - To propel oneself forward by moving the legs very quickly, so that all feet are briefly off the ground.

Different dictionaries have variations of this wording, with some dictionaries using the definition 'move fast by using one's feet, with one foot off the ground at any given time'. This definition is strictly true of human running, in that for one foot to be off the ground at all times, there must be a point where both are off simultaneously, but were this definition applied to four-legged animals, a fast walk would satisfy this meaning of running. Usually, it is accepted that to be running, there must be a 'suspended phase'. The definition of walking used by race walkers, who certainly move fast, if humorously, is that the walker makes contact with the ground at all times, otherwise they are running.

In the 19th Century, there was a long and heated debate about whether horses when trotting, cantering or galloping, were actually running, or kept at least one foot in contact with the ground at all times. It is almost impossible to tell with the naked eye. It was not until one of the pioneers of early photography, Eadweard Muybridge1 (1830 - 1904) , managed to take clear photographs of a horse at speed, that it was proved beyond doubt that they indeed did have all four feet off the ground simultaneously at one point during each cycle, and were therefore running. He made up a 'Heath Robinson'-type apparatus with trip wires, drilled wooden slides and a white screen background, to take a series of, what were for the day, fast exposure pictures that showed the full action of a horse at a gallop.

Muybridge went on to photograph many different animals, and their gaits, which he later published in Animal Locomotion, in 1887. The term he gave for an elephant's gait when going fast is an amble. This is when the legs are moved forward one side at a time, as opposed to the usual gait of a horse, dog, and most four-legged animals, when the two legs on opposing corners move together. It is similar to the gait used by camels, bears, and horses trained to 'pace'.

Elephants Cannot Lift all Four Feet Simultaneously

Therefore, by the usual definition, they cannot run. However, a study has recently been published that states elephants may be able to run, using a definition based on leg action (bounce), but ignoring the requirement for a suspended phase.

There is some debate as to how fast an elephant can walk, but it is generally accepted that a charging elephant can travel at 20+ mph, certainly faster than most men can run.

So no, elephants can't run, but they can't half2 walk fast.

1Born Edward Muggeridge, he changed his name twice, to what he believed was the Anglo Saxon version.2When the British use 'half' like this (can't half, don't half, won't half), it means of course the opposite. 'She don't half look good' = she's a beauty.

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