To watch an orangutan swing through the forest canopy is to witness the ultimate example of adaptation, athleticism, and economy—but how efficient, really, are these movements? How much energy do apes and other arboreal species lose due to the flexing of branches and gaps in the canopy? They are complex questions that have defied accurate analysis.
But now, a team of researchers at the University of Birmingham are looking to solve the problem with more than a mathematical model. The solution: Studying the movements and energy expenditures of professional parkour athletes as they move across canopy-like obstacle courses.
Dr. Susannah Thorpe, the senior lecturer in the School of Biosciences leading the study, explained that "methods to measure primate locomotion energetics are limited; most data are based on mathematical models. We propose a novel and more direct method to assess how costs of orang-utan arboreal locomotion are modulated by the environment."
"We will study the energetic costs of orangutan locomotion by measuring the oxygen consumption of athletic humans undertaking similar movements," added Dr. Lewis Halsey, "our subjects are a particularly appropriate model for the fluid nature and wide range of movements employed during orang-utan arboreal locomotion; professional parkour practitioners (free runners) who display elite gymnastic and athletic abilities."
The relative differences in energy expenditure at different points along the course will offer insight into the costs of locomotion among primates, too.
The research is critical to understanding the essential elements of primate habitats—which will help conservationists develop better management plans for protected areas.