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Kangaroo rat research earns new NSF grant

Researchers use a treadmill to replicate natural terrains for a Kangaroo rat.
The researchers use a treadmill to replicate natural terrains. Designed by a former WSU bioengineering student, the treadmill provides a sandy or solid surface with obstacles. As the rats hop, sensors measure the forces that they’re experiencing.

A new three-year, National Science Foundation grant will allow researchers to explore the complexities of kangaroo rats, small rodents that have impressive hopping and maneuvering abilities.  

The research team aims to understand the rodents’ musculoskeletal system, which lets them move quickly on uneven terrain. The findings could be used to improve robots that move in unpredictable environments.

Kangaroo rats, about 13 centimeters long and weighing about 100 grams, have a highly evolved maneuvering system that helps them move quickly across varied terrains to avoid predators. With much of their bodyweight in their hind legs, kangaroo rats can jump to heights nearly 10 times their standing hip height.

David Lin, principal investigator and associate professor in the Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering and in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience, has been studying the musculoskeletal system of kangaroo rats for nearly seven years with collaborator Craig McGowan, an associate professor at the University of Southern California. Lin’s past research has found that the rodents’ Achilles tendons are much tougher than those from other animals. 

In this NSF grant, the research team uses a treadmill to replicate natural terrains. The treadmill, designed by former WSU bioengineering student, Joseph Hall, can provide a sandy or solid surface with obstacles. As the rats hop, sensors measure the forces that they’re experiencing. Lin is studying how the animal’s foot and ankle interact with the surface. These mechanisms, when applied to robotics, could expand capabilities for autonomous machines.

Kangaroo rats, about 10 centimeters long and weighing about 100 grams, have a highly evolved maneuvering system that helps them move quickly across varied terrains to avoid predators.

“If the animals land on a rock and start pitching forward, their nervous system reflexes can’t react in time because their hopping frequency is so high,” Lin said. “The hypothesis is that their muscles and tendons, musculoskeletal geometry and tail help prevent them from pitching forward so the nervous system doesn’t have to intervene.” These mechanisms, when applied to robotics, could expand capabilities for autonomous machines. “There are lessons that we can learn from kangaroo rats, which have evolved to locomote in difficult terrains,” Lin said. “Why not apply some of these design principles to robots?”

The $500,000 project will also incorporate local high school teachers who will engage with the Lin lab during the summer months to prepare learning modules based on the research. The modules will be tested and used by students throughout the year in various science courses.

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