Robot recreates the walk of a 290-million-year-old creature
How did the earliest land animals move? Scientists wanted to find out. They created a moving robot model. It was of prehistoric life. They used a fossil skeleton. It was nearly 300 million years old. They also used preserved ancient footprints. They used them to create the model.
John Nyakatura is an evolutionary biologist. He works at Humboldt University. It is in Berlin. He has spent years studying a 290-million-year-old fossil. It was dug up in central Germany. It was dug up in Bromacker quarry. That was in 2000. The four-legged plant-eater lived before the dinosaurs. It fascinates scientists "because of its position on the tree of life," said Nyakatura. Researchers believe the creature is a "stem amniote." That is an early land-dwelling animal. It later evolved. It evolved into modern mammals. It evolved into modern birds. And it evolved into modern reptiles.
Scientists believe the first amphibious animals emerged on land 350 million years ago. They believe the first amniotes emerged around 310 million years ago.
The fossil is called Orabates pabsti. It is a "beautifully preserved and articulated skeleton," said Nyakatura. Scientists have previously identified fossilized footprints. They were left by the 3-foot-long creature.
Nyakatura teamed up with a robotics expert. That expert is Kamilo Melo. He works at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. It is in Lausanne. They developed a model. It showed how the creature moved. Their results were published in the journal Nature.
The researchers built a life-size replica. It was of the prehistoric beast. "We carefully modeled each and every bone," said Nyakatura. Then they tested the motion. They tested it in various ways. This would lead its gait to match the ancient tracks. This ruled out combinations that were not anatomically possible.
They repeated the exercise with a slightly-scaled up robot version. They called it OroBOT. The robot is made of motors. They are connected by 3D-printed plastic. And they are connected by steel parts. The model "helps us to test real-world dynamics. This accounts for gravity and friction," said Melo. The team also compared their models to living animals. These included salamanders. And it included iguanas.
Technology is transforming paleontology. This technology includes robotics. It includes computer modeling. And it includes CT scans. It is "giving us ever more compelling reconstructions of the past," said Andrew Farke. He is a curator. He works at the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology. It is in Claremont. That is in California. He was not involved in the study.
Based on the robot model, the scientists said they think the creature had more advanced locomotion than previously thought. This is especially true for such an early land animal. (Think more scampering than slithering.)
"It walked with a fairly upright posture," said Melo. "It didn't drag its belly or tail."
Thomas R. Holtz is a paleontologist. He works at the University of Maryland. He was not involved in the study. He said the research suggests "an upright stance goes further back than we originally thought."
Stuart Sumida is a paleontologist. He works at California State University in San Bernardino. He was part of the initial team that excavated Orobates fossils. He called it "an exciting study." Sumida was not involved in the robot project. He said the work provided "a much more confident window in to what happened long ago. It isn't a time machine, but Nyakatura and colleagues have given us a tantalizing peek."