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Running energetics of the North American river otter: do short legs necessarily reduce efficiency on land?

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Department of EE Biology, Center for Ocean Health - Long Marine Laboratory, 100 Shaffer Road, University of California, Santa Cruz, CA 95060, USA.


Semi-aquatic mammals move between two very different media (air and water), and are subject to a greater range of physical forces (gravity, buoyancy, drag) than obligate swimmers or runners. This versatility is associated with morphological compromises that often lead to elevated locomotor energetic costs when compared to fully aquatic or terrestrial species. To understand the basis of these differences in energy expenditure, this study examined the interrelationships between limb morphology, cost of transport and biomechanics of running in a semi-aquatic mammal, the North American river otter. Oxygen consumption, preferred locomotor speeds, and stride characteristics were measured for river otters (body mass=11.1 kg, appendicular/axial length=29%) trained to run on a treadmill. To assess the effects of limb length on performance parameters, kinematic measurements were also made for a terrestrial specialist of comparable stature, the Welsh corgi dog (body mass=12.0 kg, appendicular/axial length=37%). The results were compared to predicted values for long legged terrestrial specialists. As found for other semi-aquatic mammals, the net cost of transport of running river otters (6.63 J kg(-1)min(-1) at 1.43 ms(-1)) was greater than predicted for primarily terrestrial mammals. The otters also showed a marked reduction in gait transition speed and in the range of preferred running speeds in comparison to short dogs and semi-aquatic mammals. As evident from the corgi dogs, short legs did not necessarily compromise running performance. Rather, the ability to incorporate a period of suspension during high speed running was an important compensatory mechanism for short limbs in the dogs. Such an aerial period was not observed in river otters with the result that energetic costs during running were higher and gait transition speeds slower for this versatile mammal compared to locomotor specialists.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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