Photos: 8 amazing bionic animals

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  1. Tripod no longer

    Meet Motola, a 48-year-old female elephant who lost her leg 10 years ago after she stepped on a landmine at the Myanmar-Thai border. After three years wearing a muscle-building trainer, Motola received her permanent prosthesis in August at the Elephant Hospital in Northern Thailand, courtesy of the Prostheses Foundation.

    As Motola continues to work with her new appendage, her caregivers look forward to the day she walks with Mosha, a three-year-old female elephant who who received her "new leg" following a landmine accident two years earlier. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Bottle nose, bionic tail

    Fuji, a 28-year resident of the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium in Japan, is the beneficiary of rubber tail fluke designed by volunteers at Bridgestone tire manufacturer. The female bottlenose lost 75 percent of her tail from amputation required to stem a disease.

    After a three-dimensional analysis of dolphin movement using the same technology used to develop tires, Bridgestone engineers created several prototypes. The third version, made of two durable, living-tissue compatible rubbers, silicone and the patented “Everlight Moran,” returned Fuji’s ability to swim with ease, even allowing her to jump completely out of water. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Dog-gone leg

    Eight years ago, an inspired maker of human prosthetics came to the aid of mixed-breed collie named Maulee after she lost her paw in a wheat-cutter accident in Shady Dale, Ga.

    Daniel Holzer, owner of Able Prosthetic Care of Conyers, Ga., boned up on canine anatomy, observing gait and range of motion. Copying the Flex-Foot design, the prosthesis used by many athletes, Holzer fashioned a new front leg for Maulee using a one-inch thick piece of wood, later adding a strap to guard against the brush she encountered during her romps, and latex to prevent slipping.

    The prosthesis was an overall success, though it had to be replaced. It seems her fellow canine housemates used the original as a chew toy. (Erik S. Lesser / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Eagle beak

    Three years after she was rescued from an Alaskan landfill, slowly starving to death due to a bullet lodged in her beak, a 7-year-old bald eagle named Beauty received a gift that made her life a whole lot easier. Engineer Nate Calvin spent 200 hours perfecting an appliance for the bird, whose lost upper beak exposed her sinuses and tongue, making it difficult for her to eat, drink and preen. A dentist, veterinarian and other experts joined the project, which included computer scans of actual beaks to build an accurate mold.

    (Young Kwak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Penguin wetsuit

    Pity Pierre. He’s the 26-year-old African penguin at the California Academy of Sciences whose senior feather loss left him high and dry while his 19 tankmates frolicked in the water.

    "He was cold; he would shake," Pam Schaller, a senior aquatic biologist at the academy, told the Associated Press. So she turned to a dive-gear supplier Oceanic Worldwide for a solution. After several fittings, Pierre’s new Velcro-fastened vest was deemed a success. The senior penguin was not rejected by his peers, as was feared. What’s more, with Pierre finally warm, his feathers started to return. (Eric Risberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Circling sea turtle

    A suspected shark attack left Allison, a 5-year-old sea turtle, with a single flipper and a life spent swimming in circles. Now she has her own sharklike dorsal fin -- a carbon-fiber rudder on the back of a black neoprene suit that covers three-quarters of her body, and allows her to swim in any direction.

    Since Allison didn’t have enough stumps remaining, staff at Sea Turtle Inc., a Texas nonprofit group that rehabilitates injured sea turtles, knew prosthetics were a no-go. Canoe physics became the key scientists used to come up with enough equations needed to fit Allison with new suits, all the way up to the 600 pounds she may very well achieve. (Eric Gay / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Sliding box turtle

    It didn’t take a team of scientists to come up with a solution to help Lucky, the Petaluma, Calif., turtle believed to have lost his front legs to a backyard racoon attack -- just one creative veterinarian surgeon.

    Hesitant to consider euthanasia after witnessing Lucky’s will to live, owner Sally Pyne still wasn’t sure how Lucky would survive after surgery with only two back legs to move about. Lucky for Sally (and Lucky), Dr. Robert Jereb had plenty of experience patching up wounded turtles, using everything from bondo to fiberglass. A trip down the hardware isle brought inspiration in the form of furniture sliders. Propelled by his back legs, Lucky is now able to skid with ease. (TODAY show) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Getting your goat

    If anyone’s benefitting from the growing field of animal prosthetics, it’s Boonie the Washington State goat. The 4-year-old farm animal inadvertently wrapped a rope around his front right leg, and the loss of circulation led to the leg’s loss. But Boonie’s owner, Mara Peterson, wasn’t about to leave her 190-pound pet limping.

    After some research, she found OrthoPets, a 6-year-old pet orthotic and prosthetic supplier in Denver. Boonie’s veterinarian, Dr. Krystal Grant of Tahoma Veterinary Hospital outside Spanaway, Wash., told Tacoma’s News Tribune that Boonie isn’t alone. He’s the third or fourth goat she’s seen receive a prosthetic leg. (Lui Kit Wong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 8/2/2010 12:04:38 PM ET 2010-08-02T16:04:38

Our love of all things furry has deep roots in human evolution and may have even shaped how our ancestors developed language and other tools of civilization.

This "animal connection" compelled humans to learn about and care for fellow creatures, said Pat Shipman, a paleoanthropologist at Penn State University. She added that the behavior seems highly abnormal for other animals on the rare occasions that, say, captive tigers nurture pigs or vice versa.

"The animal connection runs through the whole [human history] and connects the other big evolutionary leaps, including stone tools, language and domestication," Shipman explained. "Instead of being isolated discoveries, there's a theme here. It's very deep and very old."

Such nurturing behavior also paid off when humans learned to harness animals as living tools rather than just as food or companions, as detailed in the August 2010 issue of the journal Current Anthropology. That allowed people to essentially use the evolutionary advantages of dogs, cats, horses and other animals for themselves.

The seemingly unique human tendency still persists in modern societies. For instance, more U.S. households have pets than have children.

"You see homeless people on the streets with pets, and people in dire circumstances keeping pets," Shipman told LiveScience. "That suggests there's something humans get out of it, which is pretty old."

Sticks, stones and words
Humans may have begun honing the animal connection after they made the leap from prey (think saber-tooth tigers sinking their fangs into our ancestors) to competitive hunter. That change grew from the development of tools and weapons (to defend oneself) starting around 2.6 million years ago.

"Once you undergo that funny ecological transition that hardly any other animal has made, you have double the advantage if you become extremely alert and extremely observant of what other animals are doing, where they are, how they move, how they communicate with each other," Shipman said.

Next, the need to communicate that knowledge about the behavior of prey animals and other predators drove the development of symbols and language around 200,000 years ago, Shipman suggests.

For evidence, Shipman pointed to the early symbolic representations of prehistoric cave paintings and other artwork that often feature animals in a good amount of detail. By contrast, she added that crucial survival information about making fires and shelters or finding edible plants and water sources was lacking.

"All these things that ought to be important daily information are not there or are there in a really cursory, minority role," Shipman noted. "What that conversation is about are animals."

Of course, much evidence is missing, because "words don't fossilize," Shipman said. She added that language may have arisen many times independently and died out before large enough groups of people could keep it alive.

Not just food
The third major evolutionary leap took place around 40,000 years ago, when humans began domesticating animals by selectively breeding them for certain traits. But Shipman believes that the common explanation humans wanted domesticated animals for food has the story backwards.

"It takes a very long time to domesticate animals," Shipman said. "To actually do it for the motivation of getting food, you'd have to be planning at a ridiculous time depth."

Besides, killing a deer in the woods gets the same amount of meat as killing a deer in a fenced area, Shipman pointed out. In her view, something else must have driven humans to corral or keep animals in the first place.

Furthermore, the earliest known domesticated animal was not a delicious porker, but man's best friend. Shipman considers humans' strong connection with animals, rather than a desire for food, as the more likely explanation for why people decided to keep dogs around.

"If you look at all the domesticated animals, they often get eaten some time at the end of their life," Shipman said. "But they also provide all these renewable resources all their lives."

Such resources include cow's milk for sustaining babies and adults alike, as well as fur or wool for making clothing or other items. Domesticated animals also have helped humans pull or carry goods. They have revolutionized transportation and exploration, not to mention carried humans into battle and changed the face of warfare.

Evolutionary shortcuts
The animal connection's transformation of formerly wild beasts into living tools gave humans a decisive edge in adapting to new environments and using the evolutionary advantages of animals for themselves.

For instance, humans living in arid regions domesticated hardy camels as reliable mounts and cargo-carriers that could survive long periods without water. In other words, humans gained an evolutionary shortcut, Shipman said.

"If you have a dog that can hunt, you don't need to turn into a fast-moving animal with sharp teeth," Shipman said. "If you're storing grains [known to attract rodents], you don't need to evolve claws and an intense focus to kill rats, [because] you have cats that do it for you."

Shipman eventually hopes to explore her hypothesis in a book. Until then, she continues to look for more prehistoric evidence.

She also admits that some people simply don't harbor any real affection for animals, which makes sense given natural variability in populations. But the widespread nurturing of animals across practically all cultures suggests something powerful cultivated the animal connection.

"People who are really devoted to pets or raise livestock, a lot of them get this deep in their bones," Shipman said.


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