Nov. 22, Neuroscience Seminar

2 p.m.


“Convergent evolution of mechanically optimal locomotion and its implications for information acquisition”

Biology often defies attempts to find simple quantitative laws underlying its vast diversity. But while evolution is more tinkerer than engineer, it occurs within the hard constraints of physics. Some such constraints underlie how an animal can move its body and limbs. We may therefore expect the evolution of similar motions among unrelated animals that must abide by the universal limitations imposed by physics. Despite this, examples of convergent evolution of body movements that quantitatively agree with the mechanically optimal solution are very rare. In this presentation, I’ll show that with respect to a very diverse group of aquatic animals, a technically optimal method of swimming with elongated fins has evolved independently at least eight times in both vertebrate and invertebrate swimmers. In one particular group of these swimmers, the weakly electric fish, we also show that this pattern is used for generating mutually antagonistic forces during a hovering behavior similar to a hummingbird tracking a moving flower, and that this control strategy simultaneously enhances stability and maneuverability. Finally, the strategy of generating antagonistic forces appears to be important for moving the sensor array for maximizing acquired information.


Dr. Malcolm MacIver is part of the Neuroscience and Robotics Lab at Northwestern University.  He believes that the body’s mechanical intelligence can be just as important, if not more important, than what’s going on in your head. His primary scientific efforts are in understanding how animal mechanics and sensory abilities fit together, and he pursues that problem using approaches from neuroscience, animal behavior studies, robotics, mathematical modeling, and computer simulations. In engineering, he has pioneered the development of a new sensor inspired by the ability of certain fish to sense using a self-generated electric field, and highly maneuverable propulsion systems based on fish locomotion.

In 2009 he received the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering from President Obama at the White House, the highest award given to emerging scientists by the government. He develops science-inspired interactive art installations that have exhibited internationally, has served as science advisor for several sci-fi TV series and movies (Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica, Tron Legacy, Superman, Man of Steel), and has been a blogger for Discover Magazine.