Before you jump, plan how you'll land.

Gary B. Gillis, biology professor and associate dean of faculty.

By Keely Savoie

Professor Gary Gillis studies the biology of animal locomotion. Most recently, he has honed in on what he calls “the inevitable consequence of being accelerated into the air”—or landing.

Gillis noticed that cane toads, in contrast to many of their froggy brethren, manage to keep from belly-flopping after a leap by employing a suite of behaviors similar to those found in jumping humans. These behaviors prepare their bulky bodies to stick the landing.

“During landing, we have to use muscles to decelerate our bodies. We have to dissipate energy,” Gillis said. “To land well, you have to be able to predict when and how hard you will hit the ground.”

But how do cane toads accomplish the neurologically complex feat of sticking their landings with such precision? What systems provide them with the information they need to anticipate and coordinate the needs of their bodies when coming in for a landing? That has been the focus of Gillis’s research.

His findings have so far shown that even blind toads can execute perfect landings—proving that they need not rely on visual information to do it. Gillis is exploring two other sources of sensory information that may play important roles in coordinating landing, namely signals and feedback from the legs themselves, and the vestibular system, which influences balance by providing the brain with crucial information about linear and angular accelerations of the body.

“We’re really excited to investigate the vestibular system, which we think is probably the key player,” he said, adding that the universal lesson seems to be that “if you’re going to jump, you should have a plan for landing before you hit the ground.”

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