For this week’s EleFACT, we want to share a little more detail on a topic we often talk about: elephant feet. More specifically, we are looking at what the feet of an elephant have in common with our own human feet. For years, researchers have compared the morphology of feet across different species and how the anatomy affects the day-to-day lives of each animal. Some significant similarities are found among the feet of dogs, horses, elephants, and humans. In both the paws, hooves, and feet of each of these species are common features of structure and function, namely that each foot structure acts as a ‘load-transmission platform,’ which aids in balance, standing, and motion.
In elephants, both the hind limbs and forefeet are considered to be oriented semi-plantigrade, and closely resemble the human foot. The tarsals and metapodials form an arch, like our own feet. Like a dog’s paw, elephant toes are oriented downward, and do not directly touch the ground, but are attached to the nail. There are distal cushions between the muscle tendon units and ligaments that are made up of extremely sensitive nerve structures. This makes the distal foot one of the most sensitive structures on the entire body of the elephant, even more so than the trunk. The foot arch and cushion are similar to a horse’s cushioned frog, the triangular structure on the underside of their hooves, as they absorb and distribute the pressure and stress of the weight of the elephant during motion.
The similarities to our human feet help us understand the sensitivities and issues that come with foot problems in elephants. We often share about Lady’s feet problems and treatments, and knowing that her foot structure is so similar to our own can help us be more sympathetic to her discomfort, and to the consequences that captivity can have on such essential structures on an elephant’s body.
Photo of Lady, enjoying some green grass