Jul 8, 2016 | By Tess

While some scientists are concerned with studying how present day creatures move and get around, understanding for instance why the cheetah is faster than the lion, some scientists are more concerned with how some of our earliest ancestors got around, namely how they transitioned from the sea to the land. This is exactly what a team of scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology are researching at the moment, and they’ve been gaining some serious insights into how tetrapods (the first vertebrates) may have moved with the help of their tails thanks to a 3D printed robot.

The research, which was recently published in a study in the journal Science, details how the scientists have been investigating the African mudskipper fish as a model for how the first vertebrates may have propelled themselves out of the water and onto the land over 360 million years ago. The mudskipper fish, for those unfamiliar, is a funny looking amphibious creature that can move out of water using its two front fins in a “crutching” motion, and its large tail, which propels it and keeps it steady on inclined surfaces.

The mudskipper species has led the team of researchers, led by Daniel Goldman, a biophysicist at Georgia Tech, to believe that the tail may have been a crucial part of how tetrapods first moved around on land. To better understand the tail’s role in the mudskippers on land movement, the scientists designed and created a 3D printed robot programmed to recreate and mimic the animal’s movements. The “MuddyBot” as they’ve dubbed it, is capable of thrusting itself forward in a number of terrains, including sand, and can replicate the mudskipper’s crutching motions while simultaneously moving its large tail.

According to the researchers, the tail proved particularly useful when the 3D printed robot was placed on a sandy inclined surface of 20 degrees. Similarly to the real mudskipper, the robot’s tail helped to propel its body upwards, and subsequently helped to stabilize the robot, stopping it from sliding back down the incline.

Goldman says of the MuddyBot, “It’s not the most glamorous device, but it’s well-controlled. We’re using a robot to do science, and in this case, to talk about things that happened 360 million years ago. By looking at robots, we were able to pick apart some of the benefits of using tails in concert with limbs. For steeply inclined materials in particular, if you don’t use your tail, you get stranded pretty quick.”

The research has relied on three types of models, a mathematical model, an organic model (the mudskipper), and a robotic model, the MuddyBot. Together, they have helped to advance the research on understanding early terrestrial locomotion. The 3D printed robot, for its part, was built by Benjamin McInroe, a graduate student under Goldman’s supervision. McInroe, who had previously 3D printed a robot to study how sea turtle’s move on land, realized his robots could be useful for paleontologists as well and began working with Goldman and his team.

Of course, it took some time to come to the mudskipper as a potential model, as the team began by first 3D printing a robot that resembled a sort of ancient salamander. When testing this robot on sandy, inclined surfaces, the team found that the hind legs of the salamander-like creature were not adept at climbing or gripping onto sandy surfaces, which led the researchers to find another alternative: the mudskipper.

Goldman explains, “The tail kind of helps erase any kind of poor control in your limbs. That was a big 'aha' moment because that says if you use your tail approximately it allows you to kind of buffer against poor limb structure control, and we wonder how well-controlled the earliest land locomotors could have controlled their limbs given that they were relatively primitive.”

In an accompanying article in Science, John Nyakatura, an evolutionary biologist at the Humboldt University of Berlin, lauded the Georgia Tech researchers for their interdisciplinary approach, combining robotics and mathematics with paleontology. By incorporating the three fields together, paleontologists have the opportunity to go beyond just theorizing and can test and explore their theories in new dimensions.

According to Goldman, the process has also allowed his team of researchers to appreciate the complex movements of the animals they are studying. He says of the project, “It was an exercise in humility. We had to combine all these discipline and spend all these years to describe how a little fish can crutch up a sandy hill. And the fish just does it.”

Goldman’s research was funded in part by the U.S. Army Research Office and the Army Research Laboratory.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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