Robot Replicates How Our Ancestors First Walked On Land

Future and ancient past combine in the study of vertebrates

Side-by-side comparison of MuddyBot and a mudskipper fish.
Side-by-side comparison of MuddyBot and a mudskipper fish.Georgia Institute of Technology, Clemson University, Carnegie Mellon University

To better understand how ancient vertebrates moved, Georgia Tech researchers built a robot. From it, they learned that tails may have been essential to climbing out of the primordial ooze.

"MuddyBot" is based on the movement of the African mudskipper, an amphibious fish that's believed to be similar to the first animals that crawled out of water 360 million years ago to walk on land. The researchers recreated riverbank-esque sand and slopes for their bot to struggle against, much like the banks early land-dwellers may have crawled upon before evolving legs.

By watching how MuddyBot crutched its way around using tail-flicks and front appendages, the researchers were able to better understand the physics and mechanics involved in early terrestrial locomotion.

MuddyBot
MuddyBot struggles through a sand pit. The "crutching" motion that propels it forward is similar to how mudskippers "walk" on land.Georgia Institute of Technology, Clemson University, Carnegie Mellon University

"Even this ridiculously seemingly simple little crutching motion with coordinated tail use confronts our ignorance in three or four different disciplines: biology, paleontology, robotics, and mathematics," Daniel Goldman, an associate professor in the Georgia Tech School of Physics, told the National Science Foundation. "That's a summary of how far away we are from really understanding it."

MuddyBot not only answers questions about evolution, but can help improve how robotics are used in moving sand and dirt during search and rescue missions.