Studying Locomotion With Rat Treadmills, Wind Tunnels

Between the resident emu and the newborn goats, Harvard's Concord Field Station, located in Bedford, Mass., has a menagerie feel. The lab researches how different animals move—which requires lots of animals, and gadgets to facilitate and document their motion.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

Here with me now is Flora Lichtman, with our Video Pick of the Week, and it is a beauty.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: Thanks, Ira. This week I went on a field trip.

FLATOW: Yes.

LICHTMAN: Wee! I went to the Concord Field Station to visit a comparative biomechanics lab.

FLATOW: That's Concord in?

LICHTMAN: Concord, Mass.

FLATOW: Mass.

LICHTMAN: It's actually in Bedford...

FLATOW: Bedford...

LICHTMAN: OK. So comparative biomechanics, right? This didn't much to me, but let me translate it for you. It means a ton of animals moving in different ways. And when I went - this is a typical day in the office there. I walk in, I'm walking around, and I first bump into post-doc(ph), Maria Miara, who has to go get her guinea fowl on the treadmill.

FLATOW: Just to go and pick her up...

LICHTMAN: It was training day.

FLATOW: ...a guinea fowl on the treadmill.

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LICHTMAN: So that's - this is like - I'm already...

FLATOW: Another day at the office.

LICHTMAN: Exactly. It's like I can tell that I'm in a special place right from the beginning, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. They have an emu and they happened to have a day-old goat. A baby goat was born the day before. It's totally bucolic.

It was like a scientific menagerie. It was just amazing.

FLATOW: And they have a cockatiel or...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. The main - a cockatiel. The main activity that day was happening in the wind tunnel. So this is - it's huge. I think - I hesitate to do the actual length, but I think probably like 40 feet, not the actual enclosure, but between the fan on one side. And they blow wind through this sort of enclosure and put the birds in, and then they can change the wind speed to make the birds flap, at sort of the equivalent of different speeds.

FLATOW: So they're like flying in the wind tunnel with the wind in the face.

LICHTMAN: They're flying in place.

FLATOW: In place.

LICHTMAN: It's like a bird treadmill. I mean, it's the same idea, right?

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: And the point of this study, which Ivo Ros is doing, was to figure out how much energy it takes to fly. So they have a little heart monitor hooked up to the cockatiels. But again, like imagine what this is like for the cockatiels. So there's all this training involved because for a bird to be flapping their wings and not going anywhere is really weird. So they have to, you know, encourage them not to sit on the bars. And it just was...

FLATOW: There's no scenery changing.

LICHTMAN: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: And they're...

LICHTMAN: It looks like a stationary bike.

FLATOW: And in your video - it's our Video Pick of the Week, which you have called the best laboratory in the world?

LICHTMAN: It was enamored with this lab. I'm just going to be honest. I thought it was the coolest lab.

FLATOW: Coolest lab in the world.

LICHTMAN: If you like animals, you should check out this video.

FLATOW: And they have all these animals that are - they're flying. They're on - they have them on treadmills. They have - they try to get them off the cabinets inside the lab.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I mean, you know, of course, if you're going to get a guinea fowl on the treadmill, it's not that like the guinea fowl is, like, yeah, I'm really looking for a workout. Thank you.

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LICHTMAN: It doesn't necessarily want to be on there, although they do seem sort of OK with it.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

LICHTMAN: You know, it was - they were pretty cooperative, surprisingly.

FLATOW: Yeah. It was very interesting, and this is what they do. I mean, they have all these different things, and you got to see the inside of this lab.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And you know, it - so what they're studying - so I could gush about the animals for a long time, but there's actual science going on here. And the idea is to understand sort of how muscles work and how our skeletons help us move. And engineers are collaborating with them to make better robots, and they have sort of influence on people looking for treatments for movement disorders in people.

I mean, this is a really basic biology happening here, but you need to have all these kinds of animals to compare how a guinea fowl runs versus how an emu runs or - and so they also have, you know, really cool gadgets. So there's like a huge X-ray machine that takes X-ray video and high-speed cameras everywhere.

FLATOW: And...

LICHTMAN: It's sort of like a visual dream.

FLATOW: It is. It's our Video Pick of the Week. It's up there on our website @sciencefriday.com, and also on our mobile apps, that you can download them. And one of my favorite little parts of the video is where the guy points to a treadmill and he says that's a special treadmill.

LICHTMAN: A treadmill of note, Ira.

FLATOW: A treadmill of note? What was of note about that?

LICHTMAN: Andrew Biewener said this as we were walking through the lab. It's where they first jump kangaroos and...

FLATOW: Of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Kangaroos on a treadmill.

LICHTMAN: To figure out how the tendons work. I mean, it really is neat stuff that I don't think – I don't think this - a lab like this exists maybe anywhere else.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: I mean, if it does, please let me know because...

FLATOW: Flora will be there in a minute.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, exactly. I'd like to see it.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, if you have any other interesting labs, let Flora know.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. And I'd also like to thank everyone who sent in videos when we requested - I'm still going through them. So if you haven't heard back from me, it's not personal. It's coming, but they were really great, so thanks for sending them.

FLATOW: Yeah. Couldn't compete with the guinea fowl this week on a treadmill. So thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira. And a happy birthday, Ira.

FLATOW: Well, thank you very much. The secret, the secret...

LICHTMAN: The secret's out.

FLATOW: The secret is out.

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