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Walk this Way: Sophisticated Research involves Lemurs, Track Stars and 3-D Cameras

Anthropology professor employs unusual blend of methods to compare ways lemurs and people move in effort to get closer to understanding what it means to be human.

Date: 4/19/2012
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
In a fourth-floor lab in the University of Cincinnati’s Braunstein Hall, you’ll find an unusual nexus between the poorly understood world of mankind’s ancestors and the high-tech world of modern science.

On one side of the lab, a high-capacity computer stores hours of video footage of transplanted sifaka lemurs that currently live in an animal research center in North Carolina. The wide-eyed primates from Madagascar can be seen bounding on their long hind legs from tree to tree, with their young clinging to their mother’s furry bodies.

In the middle of the room is an ordinary treadmill where a range of human subjects – from elite college athletes to pregnant women – tagged head to toe with motion-capture sensors come to run and be filmed by a series of eight 3-D infrared-sensitive cameras encircling the room.

Tightly intertwining both elements of this Jane Goodall-meets-James Cameron project is assistant professor of anthropology Katherine Whitcome. She studies the lemurs at the Duke University Lemur Center – which recently transferred two of the creatures to the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden – and also analyzes the human participants’ running motion in her lab. Her current research focuses on the diverse locomotion capabilities of primates and in particular how both sifaka and human mothers confront problems of stability and movement when pregnant and carrying infants.

“I’m terrifically curious about the biomechanical challenges of staying balanced and traveling efficiently during pregnancy and postpartum. We have yet to fully compare the travel costs of males and females with these unique reproductive conditions in mind,” Whitcome says.


Alan Sullivan, head of the Anthropology Department, lauded Whitcome for her creative combination of tools in her research, noting few anthropology departments nationwide have labs capable of performing such study.

“Institutionally, Katherine’s scientific questions and her integrated lab and field projects exemplify the innovative research conducted here in the Department of Anthropology, in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences, and at UC,” Sullivan says.

Sullivan isn’t the only one with an appreciation for Whitcome’s unconventional methods. Discovery Channel producer Laura Boast recently brought a film crew to the zoo and campus to do a story on Whitcome’s research for the science news show “Daily Planet.” She said the unusual way Whitcome goes about her research will translate well to television.

“This is an opportunity to tell a story that is high-concept science in an accessible, fun way,” Boast says. “It’s a unique study. There won’t be a lot of stories like this out there.”

The “Daily Planet” episode featuring Whitcome is expected to air sometime in the next three weeks. For programming showtimes, go to the “Daily Planet” website.

While the international television exposure will be great for A&S and the university, Whitcome’s mix of techniques has a more immediate and enduring effect on students who volunteer in her lab by giving them access to a blend of educational experiences, Sullivan says. Working with Whitcome, students can learn about the ethics and logistics of research on living subjects; working in a team environment; and integrating multiple data sources, such as kinematics (3-D motion capture), skeletal anatomy (anthropometry, digital CT imaging) and muscle anatomy (MRI/CT imaging).   

To Whitcome, the greatest opportunity for students is the emphasis on independent discovery.

“It’s really about working with students and giving them opportunities either in the lab or in the field to make these observations and have these experiences so they can participate in the discovery process themselves,” Whitcome says.


Although humans and chimpanzees share a recent common ancestor some 6 to 7 million years ago, the genetic connection between humans and sifaka primates goes back some 30 million years. What really intrigued Whitcome is the striking similarity in basic positional behaviors among humans and sifakas. Most primates walk on all four limbs or use their arms to swing through treetops, but not sifakas. Like humans, they move upright and bipedally, and they also share similar body proportions.
Katherine Whitcome talks with Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden Director Thane Maynard in front of the lemur enclosure at the zoo. Photo by Jay Yocis

Humans smoothly stride with their legs, placing one foot in front of the other, and lemurs thrust with their powerful hind legs to hop between trees or along the ground. Whitcome uses integrated modeling software to compare data she collects on her human and lemur mothers, allowing her to pinpoint ways each species generates movement and compensates for additional mass-related energy expenditure during pregnancy and infant carrying – whether it’s a slight pivot in the hips, a shortening of the stride or any change in behavior.

If Whitcome can find enough similarities in how the females of these very distantly related species compensate for the added burden of traveling while supporting their young, it means there’s an evolutionary aspect to this biomechanical problem.

“If we do things in a similar way, it’s because independently evolution has touched upon the right solution in two separate lineages,” Whitcome says. “It adds a higher level of confidence in looking at these behaviors as adaptations as opposed to just being mere coincidence or deep ancestral behaviors simply passed to descendents. There’s a functional reason for them.”

Sullivan further emphasized the importance of Whitcome’s comparison of two species so relatively far apart on the evolutionary family tree.

“Katherine clears the field of phylogenetic baggage – traits that are shared by virtue of descent from a very ancient common ancestor – which can be potentially confounding variables,” Sullivan says. “Closely related species may look and behave similarly merely because they inherit these similarities from a shared ancestor.”
Sifaka lemurs cling to trees in the Duke University Lemur Center. Photo by Jessica L. Burns

As Whitcome compiles results from her work, she’ll be able to look even deeper toward the roots of human evolution. She says as unique as humans are walking and running bipedally and solving complex problems both biomechanically and cognitively, we share the basic, inherent ability to do many things with other primates. Finding those commonalities as well as the differences and discovering why they evolved gives us a glimpse into the origin of our species.

“As a biological anthropologist, the fundamental question that my research addresses in a general sense is, ‘What does it mean to be human?’” Whitcome says. “My research can help us understand some of the basic bits and pieces of how humans came to be the way we are, for instance, how it is that we walk the way we do – not a trivial task and one that very early defined our unique human lineage.”

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