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Bird is the Word: The UCI Neuromechanics Lab

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The UCI Neuromechanics Lab, run by associate professor Dr. Monica A. Daley of the ecology and evolutionary biology department, is currently studying guinea fowl to research “how and why animals move the way [they] do.” 

Established in 2019 and located in McGaugh Hall, the lab is particularly interested in the topic of bipedal locomotion, or walking on two legs, since the ability to walk upright “poses unique challenges for balance and stability.” 

The Neuromechanics Lab studies how ground birds, including guinea fowl, carry out “non-steady motor tasks,” such as acceleration and turning. A current research focus is how such functions, which are associated with a higher risk of injury and collisions, are performed without sacrificing performance. 

According to Daley, these birds go through a habituation process that trains them to walk on a treadmill. Their gait, or walking patterns, are studied with high-speed video.

“One of the reasons that we use guinea fowl is that they’re fairly easy to train, … if you put a mirror in front of the treadmill, it will think that it’s a friend and it will walk towards the mirror,” Daley said.

In one study, Daley examined how guinea fowl instinctively reacted to “potholes” in terrain while running in order to learn more about neuromechanical control strategies employed by ground birds.

The report discusses how under uneven terrain conditions, guinea fowl maintain high speeds and allow “intrinsic leg mechanics” to mediate the response to unexpected perturbations, or disturbances. 

According to the lab, “the high-speed intrinsic-mechanical response to an unexpected drop is robustly stable.” When birds are able to see these obstructions, they may not necessarily employ these subconscious responses. 

courtesy of the UCI Neuromechanics Lab

Daley found that when running guinea fowl visually detected terrain disturbances, such as potholes or steps, they not only slowed down in anticipation of the obstacle, but they also tended to stumble more when “negotiating” or overcoming the drop.

Another study conducted by the Neuromechanics Lab studied the birds’ abilities to turn and maneuver on flat ground, as opposed to on the treadmill. 

The guinea fowl were placed on an L-shaped runway. Researchers manipulated the floor surface to mimic either regular terrain or slippery, ice-like terrain. 

“We’re interested in their strategies for maintaining stability with this increased risk of slipping,” Daley said. Although some birds did slip and fall, they didn’t injure themselves, and according to Daley, “did very well.”  

“We found that these birds had very strong individual strategies for navigating the slippery terrain,” Daley said. 

Some birds were very cautious and slowly navigated new terrain no matter the friction level, while others always “bolted out at high speeds.” 

Daley found that “in more than half the trials, even with practice over many, many trials, the birds didn’t change their strategy.” This meant that the careful birds were always careful, and the bolder birds kept going fast and fell more often. 

“It made us realize that it isn’t just human beings who have highly individualized strategies for locomotion. We even have to consider that for these birds … it’s not as consistent as we once thought,” Daley said.

Although the Neuromechanics Lab primarily studies birds, the research team applies their findings to other vertebrates, including humans. 

According to Daley, round birds are an optimal research candidate because they “use striding bipedal gaits that are dynamically similar to humans [such as] walking and running.” Studying ground birds and their bipedal locomotion can provide insight on how factors such as body size, leg morphology, and terrain characteristics can influence the movement of all animals. 

Daley is also directing a new Human Performance Lab in the school of biological sciences, which is geared more toward potential applications to human health. The lab explores “fundamental questions about the mechanics and control of human movement … and health throughout [one’s] lifespan.”

According to the lab’s website, these findings could potentially prove useful in the treatment of both human and animal movement disorders and serve as basis for physical rehabilitation, while also providing a biological model for mobility technology and robotics.  

Read more about Dr. Daley’s work in the UCI Neuromechanics Lab here

Lauren Le is a STEM Apprentice for the winter 2022 quarter. She can be reached at laurenl9@uci.edu