Parkour and Primate Movement - Planet Earth Online

08 January 2012

Interview with

Suzanna Thorpe, University of Birmingham

Chris -   If you think of the opening scenes in the movie Casino Royale, James Bond chases a villain who swings and slides, and jumps along a crane and across various rooftops.  This is actually a sport known as free running or parkour, and it's now helping scientists at the University Birmingham to understand how one of man's closest relatives, the orang-utan, travels through the canopy of a rainforest.  Planet Earth Podcast presenter Sue Nelson met Dr. Suzanna Thorpe from the University's School of Biosciences to find out more...

Suzanna -   What we're doing here is using the parkour athletes as an analogy for a large bodied ape moving around a complex environment.  We're getting them to move around an assault course that we've made, that they've never seen before, and we're going to record their energetic expenditure while they're doing it.  The reason we're doing the study is that orang-utans and the other great apes move around the canopy of tropical forests and the branches there are very flexible underneath their weight because the animal is so large.  Here we have lots of supports that we can make behave like branches in the forest, we can set up the assault course so that it's very complicated, as moving around a forest canopy would be, and we can confound how the supports behave.  So, we can have supports that appear to be stiff that we make compliant and supports that are quite compliant that we actually make to behave in a stiff way.  That mimics the challenge that a large bodied ape would face moving around the canopy, when they have to look ahead of them and judge how the supports available to them are going to behave without being able to test them.

Sumatran orangutanBrendan -   The way I would do it to get the best swing is I would jump up and backwards and reach one arm up, swing to the other side and as I get to the end point, swing that one arm back down...

Sue -   The athlete that's helping the scientists here is Brendan Riley from EMP Parkour.  What are the basic moves?

Brendan -   A simple vault would be the cat pass, which is like a through vault in gymnastics.  You have the tic-tac, that's kicking off a wall to propel yourself higher or further.  You have a speed vault, that's a really efficient vault, just one handed, and then there's a bunch of other ones which are less efficient but just as much fun.  Then the main thing we do is a precision, that's just jumping from one thing to another, or if you grab hold with your hands and that's called an arm jump.

Sue -   How do you feel about helping scientists here examine how primates move?  I assume you're not insulted by this?

Brendan -   Not at all.  I love monkeys, I love apes, I wish I was a gibbon.  I think I probably was in a previous life.  It sounds weird but we look up to primates.  We look at their movements and it's very inspirational.  I know some guys who have actually been to different parts of the world just to see how the monkeys move and have been training with them.  I think it's brilliant.

Sue -   In order to work out what the energy costs are for the parkour athletes as they complete the circuit, you need to take some measurements and that's where Dr. Lewis Halsey comes in.  He's a senior lecturer in environmental physiology at the University of Roehampton in London.  So, Lewis, what are you going to measure and how are you going to do it?

Lewis -   The primary thing we're interested in is the energy costs for our parkour athletes as they traverse the circuit, as they use various bits of apparatus.  We're going to measure that by measuring their oxygen consumption.  So, we're going to put onto their backs, essentially, a portable oxygen analyser.  It'll have a mask and the oxygen consumption of the person and the carbon dioxide output at the same time is measured, and that's all relayed to a computer.  So in real time, we can see the various costs of the various apparatus they're using.  There's an added twist to this, which is at some points, they may partly use anaerobic metabolic pathways and the analyser can't pick that up because it's measuring oxygen consumption which is involved with aerobic pathways.

Sue -   Suzanna, it's an amazing experiment and I can't wait to find out what the results are going to be, but there's quite an important reason isn't there for actually doing this project?

Suzanna -   It's important for lots of different reasons.  One, from the perspective of understanding human evolution and the challenge that the common ancestor of all of the great apes would face and also, our ancestors would face when they were partly arboreal and partly moving bipedally on the ground.  Secondly, from a conservation or an ecological perspective, if we understand a lot more about the challenges that orang-utans face in the canopy and the solutions that they find to solve them and the energetic cost of doing so, then we can better construct conservation strategies for them.  They are predicted to be extinct within ten years in the wild if we don't do something about it.  So, finding the most effective way to structure a habitat or picking the most effective habitat for them for rehabilitance, is a good way to help contribute towards their conservation.

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