Despite what some extremist groups will tell you, evolution is a very well-understood and evidence-supported theory. Don’t let the scientific nomenclature fool you — evolution is a fact. But, that doesn’t mean we know everything about how every animal evolved. Specifically, we understand relatively little about how specific extinct animals actually lived. That’s why scientists used a robot to figure out how an extinct reptile-like amphibian called Orobates pabsti actually walked 300 million years ago.
This research was conducted by an interdisciplinary team of scientists and engineers from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne and the Humboldt University of Berlin. Their goal was to use simulated models and robotics to provide an accurate representation of how Orobates was able to move around. That information, in turn, can help biologists determine how the gait of animals evolved over time.
To do that, they utilized three key sets of data: fossils of Orobates, the fossilized footprints they left behind, and the movement of similar modern animals, such as iguanas, salamanders, and caimans. They first created computer simulations that factored in the animal’s bone structure and stride, which were used to test hundreds of different gaits. Then, they created a robotic representation called OroBOT to test those gaits in the real world.
OroBOT has a “frame” constructed from a reproduction of an actual fossilized Orobates skeleton. With data from their their computer simulations, they determined where to place the servo motor joints and how to program them. With the OroBOT, they were able to see how the simulated gaits performed under real physical conditions, and ultimately determine how Orobates pabsti most likely walked.