Gait-specific energetics contributes to economical walking and running in emus and ostriches

Rebecca R. Watson, Jonas Rubenson, Lisa Coder, Donald F. Hoyt, Matthew W.G. Propert, Richard L. Marsh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


A widely held assumption is that metabolic rate (Ėmet) during legged locomotion is linked to the mechanics of different gaits and this linkage helps explain the preferred speeds of animals in nature. However, despite several prominent exceptions, Ėmet of walking and running vertebrates has been nearly uniformly characterized as increasing linearly with speed across all gaits. This description of locomotor energetics does not predict energetically optimal speeds for minimal cost of transport (Ecot). We tested whether large bipedal ratite birds (emus and ostriches) have gait-specific energetics during walking and running similar to those found in humans. We found that during locomotion, emus showed a curvilinear relationship between Ėmet and speed during walking, and both emus and ostriches demonstrated an abrupt change in the slope of Ėmet versus speed at the gait transition with a linear increase during running. Similar to human locomotion, the minimum net Ecot calculated after subtracting resting metabolism was lower in walking than in running in both species. However, the difference in net Ecot between walking and running was less than is found in humans because of a greater change in the slope of Ėmet versus speed at the gait transition, which lowers the cost of running for the avian bipeds. For emus, we also show that animals moving freely overground avoid a range of speeds surrounding the gait-transition speed within which the Ecot is large. These data suggest that deviations from a linear relation of metabolic rate and speed and variations in transport costs with speed are more widespread than is often assumed, and provide new evidence that locomotor energetics influences the choice of speed in bipedal animals. The low cost of transport for walking is probably ecologically important for emus and ostriches because they spend the majority of their active day walking, and thus the energy used for locomotion is a large part of their daily energy budget.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2040-2046
Number of pages7
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1714
StatePublished - Jul 7 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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