By Michael Wright in London
The Tias gopher’s back legs have been implanted with sensors on its hind leg
From its red tussocky fur to its pink fleshy tail, it could be any mammal. But this Tias gopher is special – because not only does it have the most legs of any living animal, it is able to stretch them for days, weeks and even months without breaking.
The idea came from Danielle O’Brien and her husband Chris, who noticed the curious animal on their property in Chile. The whole team said wow, I want to do something like that
Dr Simon Reynolds, neuroscientist
After countless attempts at coaxing the creature to respond to their movement, they contacted neuroscientist Simon Reynolds, who specialises in reflexes, which is something he specializes in teaching children with cerebral palsy. The whole team was amazed – and thrilled – to discover that without any manipulation or electric stimulation, it would bounce back and hop again. He told BBC News: “The idea came from Danielle O’Brien and her husband Chris, who noticed the curious animal on their property in Chile. The whole team said wow, I want to do something like that.”
I’ve been looking at a lot of animals for some time – and this is an amazing animal.
Dr Harvey Strauss, Wildlife Conservation Society
It might not have been there at all but for the way the team persuaded it to hide when they approached. Then they stuck a number of sensors on the gopher’s hind leg, that last 17 years and measure 500 x 315 mm. One of the sensors will be turned on every day at 25-45 cm intervals, in order to monitor the animal’s responses. The sensors include drop-microphone activated lavalier microphones so that the gopher is able to hear the commands it wants to respond to when they are being delivered. Electrodes on the gopher’s front legs also measure movement to provide feedback. It is then possible to see if there is a good match between the gopher’s autonomic muscle function, which means its legs move in response to its internal bodily cues. Dr Reynolds said the gopher uses its nervous system to control the intensity of the movement. However, in order to ensure that the animals’ bodies are moving exactly as the gopher wants them to be moving, the low body pressure of the sensors is produced in order to create the necessary stimulus. The world’s most swollen gopher “The best way to deliver these pulses is to let the animals initiate the level of stimulation they require themselves by using muscles in the back legs,” Dr Reynolds explained. The next step in the study will be to run a trial where the animals react to the stimulus with such keenness that it has an effect, allowing the sensory information to be absorbed and affecting the animal’s more muscular areas. “We don’t need a bunch of electrodes on the front of the legs,” he said. “What we need is this passive reinforcement that tells the animal they are doing the right thing.” Dr Reynolds said they are excited about future investigations in which they can replicate the physiological responses and detect if muscles become stiff or weak. But overall, he feels the gopher proves the value of remote control of animals, whether it be pets or creatures like the gopher. “I’ve been looking at a lot of animals for some time,” he added. “And this is an amazing animal. I’ve worked on animals for a long time with good understanding and I think it’s going to be important in the future to study animals in a way that is new and much more interesting.”
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