When skeletons are geared for speed: the morphology, biomechanics, and energetics of rapid animal motion

Integr Comp Biol. 2012 Nov;52(5):588-96. doi: 10.1093/icb/ics111. Epub 2012 Sep 2.


A skeleton amplifies the minute contractions of muscles to animate the body of an animal. The degree that a muscular contraction displaces an appendage is determined by the gearing provided by the joints of a skeleton. Species that move rapidly commonly possess joints with relatively high gears that produce a large output displacement. However, the speed of an appendage can depend on dynamics that obscure how this motion is influenced by the skeleton. The aim of this review is to resolve mechanical principles that govern the relationship between the gearing and speed of skeletal joints. Forward dynamic models of three rapid force-transmission systems were examined with simulations that varied the gearing of a joint. The leg of a locust, the raptorial appendage of a mantis shrimp, and the jaw of a toad are all driven by the conversion of stored elastic energy into kinetic energy. A locust achieves this conversion with high efficiency when it kicks and thereby applies nearly all stored energy into fast movement. This conversion is unaffected by differences in the leverage of the knee joint, as demonstrated by a maximum kicking speed that was found to be independent of gearing. In contrast, the mantis shrimp creates drag as it strikes toward a prey and thereby loses energy. As a consequence, high gears displace the raptorial appendage relatively far and yield slower motion than do low gears. The muscle that opens a toad's jaw also dissipates energy during ballistic capture of prey. This loss of energy is reduced when jaw opening occurs from the slower muscle contraction produced by a high gear within the jaw. Therefore, the speed of these lever systems is dictated by how gearing affects the efficiency of the conversion of potential energy into kinetic energy. In this way, the energetics of force transmission mediate the relationship between the gearing of a skeletal joint and the maximum speed of its motion.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anura / anatomy & histology
  • Anura / physiology
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Body Size
  • Bone and Bones / physiology*
  • Computer Simulation
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Energy Transfer
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology
  • Grasshoppers / physiology
  • Jaw / anatomy & histology
  • Jaw / physiology*
  • Joints / physiology
  • Models, Biological
  • Movement / physiology*
  • Muscle Contraction
  • Muscles / physiology*
  • Time Factors