Kinematic and center of mass (CoM) mechanical variables used to define terrestrial gaits are compared for various tetrapod species. Kinematic variables (limb phase, duty factor) provide important timing information regarding the neural control and limb coordination of various gaits. Whereas, mechanical variables (potential and kinetic energy relative phase, %Recovery, %Congruity) provide insight into the underlying mechanisms that minimize muscle work and the metabolic cost of locomotion, and also influence neural control strategies. Two basic mechanisms identified by Cavagna et al. (1977. Am J Physiol 233:R243–R261) are used broadly by various bipedal and quadrupedal species. During walking, animals exchange CoM potential energy (PE) with kinetic energy (KE) via an inverted pendulum mechanism to reduce muscle work. During the stance period of running (including trotting, hopping and galloping) gaits, animals convert PE and KE into elastic strain energy in spring elements of the limbs and trunk and regain this energy later during limb support. The bouncing motion of the body on the support limb(s) is well represented by a simple mass-spring system. Limb spring compliance allows the storage and return of elastic energy to reduce muscle work. These two distinct patterns of CoM mechanical energy exchange are fairly well correlated with kinematic distinctions of limb movement patterns associated with gait change. However, in some cases such correlations can be misleading. When running (or trotting) at low speeds many animals lack an aerial period and have limb duty factors that exceed 0.5. Rather than interpreting this as a change of gait, the underlying mechanics of the body's CoM motion indicate no fundamental change in limb movement pattern or CoM dynamics has occurred. Nevertheless, the idealized, distinctive patterns of CoM energy fluctuation predicted by an inverted pendulum for walking and a bouncing mass spring for running are often not clear cut, especially for less cursorial species. When the kinematic and mechanical patterns of a broader diversity of quadrupeds and bipeds are compared, more complex patterns emerge, indicating that some animals may combine walking and running mechanics at intermediate speeds or at very large size. These models also ignore energy costs that are likely associated with the opposing action of limbs that have overlapping support times during walking. A recent model of terrestrial gait (Ruina et al., 2005. J Theor Biol, in press) that treats limb contact with the ground in terms of collisional energy loss indicates that considerable CoM energy can be conserved simply by matching the path of CoM motion perpendicular to limb ground force. This model, coupled with the earlier ones of pendular exchange during walking and mass-spring elastic energy savings during running, provides compelling argument for the view that the legged locomotion of quadrupeds and other terrestrial animals has generally evolved to minimize muscle work during steady level movement. J. Exp. Zool. 305A 2006. © 2006 Wiley-Liss, Inc.