ECR Spotlight is a series of interviews with early-career authors from a selection of papers published in Journal of Experimental Biology and aims to promote not only the diversity of early-career researchers (ECRs) working in experimental biology during our centenary year but also the huge variety of animals and physiological systems that are essential for the ‘comparative’ approach. Talia Moore is an author on ‘ Jumping over fences: why field- and laboratory-based biomechanical studies can and should learn from each other’, published in JEB. Talia is an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan, USA, investigating bio-inspired robotic design, and biomechanics and behavior of unsteady terrestrial motion.
Describe your scientific journey and your current research focus
Taking my first biomechanics course in college (with Bob Full, Mimi Koehl and Robert Dudley) was when science first started to click for me. The integration of mechanics with behavior, evolution and robotics in this class really inspired me to think about how biomechanical features and performance evolve, so I pursued a PhD at the Harvard Concord Field Station (CFS) with Andy Biewener and Jonathan Losos. At that time, Kim Cooper had just started the first breeding lab colony of jerboas at CFS, so I had the opportunity to study their biomechanics to complement her developmental inquiries. These bipedal hopping rodents were clearly substantially constrained by laboratory conditions, so Kim and I went to Western China to study them in their natural habitat. Their complex, 3D escape trajectories pretty much overturned all my assumptions about legged locomotion, so I developed a new metric of unpredictability to characterize their movement. We also built a jerboa phylogenetic tree and found that metatarsal fusion and toe loss have different evolutionary patterns and likely distinct genetic mechanisms. Then, for my postdoc at the University of Michigan with Alison Davis Rabosky, I used my experience with messy, unsteady locomotion to develop modular behavioral ethograms to characterize snake anti-predator behaviors. I remembered my training from undergrad and realized that using robotic models would allow me to isolate variables and test whether color pattern and behavior interact to generate an emergent aposematic signal. To mimic these snakes, I developed a modular design strategy for fiber-reinforced elastomeric enclosure pneumatic soft robots, and started working closely with the Robotics Institute. Now, I am a professor of Robotics and Mechanical Engineering where I develop bio-inspired robots, robotic systems to test biological hypotheses, and still probe at the mysteries of jerboa locomotion.
How would you explain the main message of your Review to a member of the public
We recognize the importance and value of both field- and laboratory-based approaches to studying biomechanics, and we want to encourage researchers to jump over the fences between these approaches and design more blended studies. Explicitly varying the environmental conditions within a laboratory environment, whether they are light, sound, temperature, scents or other organisms, can reveal how these factors might influence biomechanical performance in variable environments. This is especially important as global climate change more frequently confronts organisms with temperatures outside of their normal operating range. While animals might exhibit a range of locomotor behaviors in the lab, incorporating biologging technology can help us understand which behaviors are most commonly exhibited in natural contexts. This is especially informative for understanding how biomechanical performance determines success at mating, predator evasion or predation. Thus, integrating field- and lab-based studies can lead us to study biomechanics of organisms in ways that are tied more closely to evolution and ecology.
Are there any important historical papers from your field that have been published in JEB?
On any biomechanical topic, there is a foundational paper in JEB. It's impossible to choose only one! I especially love that the methods section of JEB articles is usually very comprehensive, which is helpful for those learning and designing their own experiments. A conceptual paper that really changed the way that both biologists and roboticists think about locomotion is ‘Templates and anchors: neuromechanical hypotheses of legged locomotion on land’ by Bob Full and Dan Koditschek (1999; doi:10.1242/jeb.202.23.3325). I think Bob would balk at this being categorized a ‘historical’ paper, but it has had such a disproportionate impact for its relatively recent publication date that I think it's a 20th century classic! This paper challenges us to explicitly consider how much complexity is required to model a system, whether it is biological or engineered. Complex ‘anchor’ models that reflect real biological features are useful to predict the effect of surgical interventions, as in OpenSim modeling. On the other hand, simple ‘template’ models can generalize across many morphologies and the low degrees of freedom make it easy to apply complex computational algorithms. This conceptual framework asks us to justify each additional component in a model and facilitates the transfer of knowledge between biology and robotics.
Are there any modern-day JEB papers that you think will be the classic papers of 2123?
I think that ‘Linking biomechanics and ecology through predator–prey interactions: flight performance of dragonflies and their prey’ by Stacey Combes and colleagues (2012; doi:10.1242/jeb.059394) is great because it integrates biomechanics, behavior and ecology, and clearly demonstrates why it is important to study animals both in the lab and in the field. Stacey built an outdoor greenhouse with enough light for dragonflies to hunt and set up a ton of high-speed cameras to track both the predator and prey. Not only did they determine which features of prey flight led to survival and characterize the hunting behavior of the predators but they also demonstrated that fruit flies fly with much higher velocities than previously recorded because they were flown outdoors! This paper was really influential in shaping which features I consider when designing experiments, and I think it will have a lasting impact.
What do you think experimental biology will look like 50 years from now?
I think that the big-data era has only just started to affect experimental biology. With more tools to analyze large datasets, it will become more standard to examine variation in self-motivated locomotion, rather than only analyzing the most perfect trials. And with the advances in sensor technology, I am excited that we are increasingly able to collect more precise data on animals moving in natural environments.
If you had unlimited funding, what question in your research field would you most like to address?
I'd like to know all the daily behavioral and biomechanical patterns of a community of animals over the course of years. By recording these behaviors, we would be able to compute the relative importance of different biomechanical tasks (i.e. predator evasion, foraging, mating dances) to overall fitness.
What's next for you?
I'm working on building bio-inspired and bio-mimetic robots for animal–robot interaction studies. This will help me isolate variation in complex biomechanical traits that may be correlated in nature and measure the response in real animals.
Talia Moore’s contact details: Robotics, Mechanical Engineering, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109, USA.