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Scientists built a lizard-like robot based on a 280-million-year-old fossil

They knew what they were doing when they taught it to walk this way.

Tomislav Horvat/K. Melo

You have to learn to walk before you can learn to fly.

That's the mantra of 1,000 Instagram motivational posts I've seen over the years, but it has its place in history, too. In an effort to understand how some of the first land-dwelling creatures walked, paleontologists, engineers and computer scientists have teamed up and created a robotic Orobates pabsti.

The prehistoric creature, which slunk along the forest floors around 280 million years ago, is known as a "stem amniote" -- an offshoot of plant-eating land vertebrates, or tetrapods. It's kind of like a cousin to the ancestors that would eventually become today's reptiles, mammals and birds.

That makes it a good organism to study, because it could help show how creatures came to move across land and how the diversity of life we see today came to be. Scientists had predicted that Orobates might drag its body across the ground like a salamander, undulating from side to side.

Fortunately, the research team had access to ancient fossilized footprints and a full four-legged skeleton to examine.

Computer modelling was central to understanding the rhythm of the creature's movement and the team looked to modern-day creatures like caimans, iguanas and skinks to formulate theories on its locomotion. Using X-ray vision of those animals walking, they created animations constrained by the limits of reality. 

And they weren't done just at simulations. They also built the OroBOT, a 4-foot long robot version of Orobates, that can physically act out the movements their simulations predict. Using 28 motors and 3D printed parts, they brought Orobates back from the dead, albeit in robot form. 

When all the data was taken together, the scientists drew the conclusion that Orobates was much more advanced at getting around than previously thought. Essentially, this style of walking was invented a lot earlier than we'd believed -- and Orobates didn't drag its stomach across the soil, it held it up in the air like an iguana or caiman might.

The research was published in the journal Nature on Jan. 16, and the publication also uploaded this absolutely wild video of creating the robot and determining how Orobates moved around. 

Even more impressive is an interactive built by the research teams, that lets you manipulate the gait of the ancient beast with a series of sliders, providing a real-time computer simulation of how it may have walked. The interactive provides "exploration of the filters that constrain our simulations, which will allow revision of our approach using new data, assumptions or methods," the team wrote in Nature.

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