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Robotic salamander provides clues to the past

Jeannie Choe

A team of Franco-Swiss scientists has attempted to gain evolutionary insight on how animals first started walking on land by testing a salamander-like robot controlled wirelessly from a PC. They believe the slimy amphibians to be very similar to the first fish-to-land-strutting vertebrates -- their steps controlled mainly by the spinal cord. The scientists can maneuver the robo-salamander to easily switch between swimming, slithering, and crawling by sending signals from the PC to move its limbs via its mechanical "spinal cord." Since the computer system controlling the bot's spine is no more complex than the nervous systems of primitive walking pioneers, the scientists can deduce that their brains worked mostly to control speed and direction. "A decapitated chicken that runs for a while even without the brain is a good example of spinal cord regulation of locomotion," states researcher Auke Jan Ijspeert. By experimenting with the robot, the team came closer to their goal "to decode perhaps some of what happened during evolution."

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