Supervisor:   John Hutchinson

Department:  Comparative Biomedical Sciences

Background

All eight species of pangolins (Pholidota; armoured mammals that mainly eat ants and termites) are currently endangered, from Africa to southeast Asia. The lineage of pangolins is remarkable, with a fossil record dating back to shortly after the extinction of the dinosaurs. One remarkable aspect of pangolins is that they are among the few mammals able to stand or walk bipedally; i.e. on their hindlimbs. At first glance, biomechanically, this bipedalism seems related to their digging-specialised forelimbs (being poorly adapted to locomotion) and their bulky tails (which should shift weight and centre of mass back onto the hindlimbs). However, this relationship has never been tested, nor has pangolin locomotion been studied in any quantitative, biomechanical way to test how quadrupedalism and bipedalism work. Finally, pangolins in the wild often suffer injuries to their limbs or tail that compromise locomotion abilities. Better data on how they walk normally or abnormally would help assess their welfare (e.g. in captivity) and could inspire improved treatments. Such information could also inform the design of legged robots; e.g. digging/climbing robots with prehensile tails and flexible locomotor abilities; and it would help illuminate how the unusual locomotion of pangolins evolved. We seek to conduct novel measurements of pangolin anatomy and locomotion to test how they move and how morphology and movement are linked.

 

Hypotheses

  1. The large tail of pangolins shifts their centre of mass toward their hindlimbs, requiring greater weight support during standing and moving on the hindlimbs than forelimbs; unlike in most other mammals.
  2. Species of pangolin or individual pangolins with differing morphologies have divergent abilities to move bipedally—in particular, pangolins with a centre of mass closer to the hindlimbs move bipedally more often.

 

Aims

  1. To measure morphology of multiple pangolin individuals and species from cadaveric dissections and/or CT scans (mortalities found by wildlife/zoo officials).
  2. To experimentally quantify the motions and forces that pangolins use when standing and moving on two or four limbs.
  3. To compare morphology and biomechanics among pangolin individuals and species to test for statistical correlations between form and function.

 

References

  1. Allen, V., Bates, K. T., Li, Z., & Hutchinson, J. R. (2013). Linking the evolution of body shape and locomotor biomechanics in bird-line archosaurs. Nature, 497(7447), 104.
  2. Challender, D. W., Thai, N. V., Jones, M., & May, L. (2012). Time‐budgets and activity patterns of captive Sunda pangolins (Manis javanica). Zoo biology, 31(2), 206-218.
  3. Kawashima, T., Thorington Jr, R. W., Bohaska, P. W., Chen, Y. J., & Sato, F. (2015). Anatomy of shoulder girdle muscle modifications and walking adaptation in the Scaly Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla pentadactyla: Pholidota) compared with the partially osteoderm‐clad armadillos (Dasypodidae). The Anatomical Record, 298(7), 1217-1236.
  4. Rone, W. S., Liu, Y., & Ben-Tzvi, P. (2018). Maneuvering and stabilization control of a bipedal robot with a universal-spatial robotic tail. Bioinspiration & biomimetics, 14(1), 016014.

  

Requirements

Applicants should hold, or expect to receive a first or upper second class honours degree in biological sciences or a similar field, and have an interest in biomechanics — including maths and computer programming as well as engineering/physics. Enthusiasm, curiosity, creativity, and a love for animals and science are prerequisites, as is the ability to travel to do fieldwork for experimental data collection in remote areas (e.g. South Africa; Taiwan).

 
This is a full-time (12 month) project commencing in October 2019, based at RVC's Hawkshead campus.

 
Partially funded - the lab will be covering some of the project costs, and the MRes student will be expected to meet the outstanding sum required, course fees and their living expenses.
We welcome informal enquiries - these should be directed to jhutchinson@rvc.ac.uk

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