Decoding the mechanisms of gait generation in salamanders by combining neurobiology, modeling and robotics
Vertebrate animals exhibit impressive locomotor skills. These locomotor skills are due to the complex interactions between the environment, the musculo-skeletal system and the central nervous system, in particular the spinal locomotor circuits. We are interested in decoding these interactions in the salamander, a key animal from an evolutionary point of view. It exhibits both swimming and stepping gaits and is faced with the problem of producing efficient propulsive forces using the same musculo-skeletal system in two environments with significant physical differences in density, viscosity and gravitational load. Yet its nervous system remains comparatively simple. Our approach is based on a combination of neurophysiological experiments, numerical modeling at different levels of abstraction, and robotic validation using an amphibious salamander-like robot. This article reviews the current state of our knowledge on salamander locomotion control, and presents how our approach has allowed us to obtain a first conceptual model of the salamander spinal locomotor networks. The model suggests that the salamander locomotor circuit can be seen as a lamprey-like circuit controlling axial movements of the trunk and tail, extended by specialized oscillatory centers controlling limb movements. The interplay between the two types of circuits determines the mode of locomotion under the influence of sensory feedback and descending drive, with stepping gaits at low drive, and swimming at high drive.