Ethan Clotfelter

Biology 264: “Form and Function”—Ethan Clotfelter, professor of biology and environmental studies. 

“There are ants that jump by snapping their jaws closed so quickly that it launches them in the air,” says Ethan Clotfelter, professor of biology and environmental studies, giving just one unusual example of animal motion explored this spring in “Form and Function.” Why and how would a species evolve to have such an ability? How does the movement happen, biomechanically? Could humans apply similar principles to build a way to launch ourselves in the air?

Such questions have fascinated the professor for years, but he’s “a self-acknowledged non-expert,” so he tested out various topics and activities in a 2014 seminar on animal morphology and kept those that students found most engaging.

Ethan Clotfelter

In the new course, students go to the Beneski Museum of Natural History to take measurements of ancient bone specimens and dinosaur tracks. They compare these to data on extant species to calculate how fast the extinct animals may have been able to run. They analyze videos of horses, observing the patterns of their footfalls and angles of their joints, to discern differences between walking, trotting and galloping. They converse over Skype with authors of some of the papers they read.

The course also considers how animal anatomy and locomotion can inspire human innovation. A friend, for instance, “has developed this adhesive tape modeled after the toe pads of geckos,” Clotfelter says. “Geckos are lizards that can walk up walls, so there’s been a lot of research into how that actually works at a molecular level.”

Topics and classroom activities vary, he says, to keep students “on their toes.” And speaking of toes: the course delves into the way human muscles, bones and ligaments have evolved for running. “Students get really excited,” Clotfelter says, “about connecting something that a lot of them do recreationally, and some of them do on a sports team, with the scientific understanding of what’s going on.”