Mathematical framework unravels the simplicity of early walking in ancient vertebrates

March 17, 2021
Little Skate

In 2018 researchers from New York University found that little skates, which scuttle along the sea floor on two leg-like fins, use the same motor neurons and genes that help humans and other land vertebrates walk. The study’s findings suggested the neural networks required for walking may have been present in the common ancestor of skates and mammals about 420 million years ago. But how these ancient ancestors walked remained a mystery.

Postdoctoral researcher Fabio Giardina, Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and Prof. L. Mahadevan (OEB and SEAS) developed a mathematical framework to explain how underwater walking may have evolved. The researchers found that the ancient ancestors of skates and humans could have achieved efficient underwater walking using the available body morphology with very little energy and simple controls.

The research was published in the journal Royal Society Interface.

See also: Faculty News, 2021