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LEGS, SPINE AND TRACKS - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment (Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Loxodonta africana - African Elephant)

Elephants have quite long legs which are massive and columnar. Externally on the foot the horny sole and the large flat nails form the "hoof slipper"; the sole is normally horny and fissured. Internally, the bones of the digits rest on a large pad of fatty fibroelastic tissue which acts as a shock absorber. As the elephant walks, the sole bulges outward when lifted off the ground and splays out when weight bearing. The arrangement of the distal limb bones makes the elephant semi-digitigrade but due to the internal structure with its cushioning tissue, they appear plantigrade. The print of the forefoot is round while that of the hind foot is more oval. There are usually five nails on the forefeet and four on the hind feet (some authorities give four and three); the most lateral nails, and the most medial nails of the hind feet, may become lost or torn out, and there is some genetic variation in nail number also (the number of phalanges does not vary). Elephants walk and do not trot, canter, gallop or jump, however they can reach a respectable pace while walking. The massive limb bones have thick, dense cortices (walls) and are filled with reticulated cancellous bone, lacking marrow cavities except in small parts of the femur and tibia.

(References are available in detailed literature reports below)

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Legs and Tracks

Source Information
  • The legs are "long, massive and columnar." (B147)
  • To support the massive body weight, the bones are arranged almost vertically in both the fore and hind limbs. (B10.49.w21)
  • The feet are short, broad and columnar. (B147)
  • The elephant's weight rests on a pad of elastic tissue. (B147)
    • In each foot the bones rest on a fibroelastic fatty pad; this acts as a shock-absorber. (B10.49.w21)
  • Externally there is a "hoof slipper" of horny sole and toenails. (B10.49.w21)
  • The nails of elephants are large and flat. (B384.3.w3)
  • The weight is well distributed; elephants do not leave much in the way of tracks. (B285.w3)
  • The sole of the foot is seen to bulge outward (convex) when the foot is off the ground. When weight is placed on the foot, the foot splays out. (B384.3.w3)
    • The reduction in circumference as the foot is raised makes walking in mud, specifically, drawing each foot from the mud, easier. (B384.3.w3)
  • The sole is horny and deeply fissured; tracks from individual elephants can be recognised by the pattern from the sole. (B384.3.w3)
  • The tracks of the forefeet are rounded, those of the hind feet are more elliptical. (B384.3.w3)
  • The elephant's foot is semi-plantigrade semi-digitigrade. (B453.1.w1)
  • The phalanges are embedded in a compressible and shock-absorbing cushion of white and elastic fibres meshed with fatty masses. As the foot becomes weight bearing, the cushion is compressed and the phalanges are laterally expanded to some extent; the foot is able to adjust to the shape of the surface beneath it. (B453.1.w1)
  • The legs form cylindrical pillars. (B453.1.w1)
  • The forefoot is circular while the hindfoot is ovoid. On both fore and hind limbs the feet protrude forwards slightly. (B453.1.w1)
  • In elephants at rest the upper joints may not be very visible but the wrist and ankle are usually clearly distinguishable. (B453.1.w1)
  • Externally, the feet appear pseudoplantigrade. (B453.1.w1)
  • At term, the nails are present on the soles as well as on the foot's dorsal surface; the nails then wear away on the sole and are found only on the dorsal surface of the foot. (B453.plate7)
  • Elephants have a pitted, ridged sole, increasing grip on the substrate. (B451.1.w1)
  • The forefoot is round and the hind foot oval in outline. (B451.1.w1)
  • The forefoot circumference is approximately equal to twice shoulder height; the forefoot print is larger than the foot circumference, since the sole spreads under the elephant's weight. (B451.1.w1)
  • Above the sole, the foot narrows, giving a thinner "waist". (B451.1.w1)
  • Much of the body of the foot is composed of fatty, fibrous tissue which is elastic and acts as a cushioning shock absorber. (B451.1.w1)
  • Elephants are digitigrade but, due to the cushioning tissue, appear to be plantigrade. (B451.1.w1)

Number of toes and toenails:

  • Each foot has five toes, but the outer toes may be vestigial: there are five nails on the forefoot of African elephants and three on the hind foot. (B147)
  • Typically in the Savannah elephant, the forefoot bears four visible toes and the hindfoot three. (B285.w3)
  • There are usually four toenails on each forefoot and three on each hindfoot. (B384.3.w3)
  • There are usually five toenails on the forefoot and four on the hind foot. (P17.21.w1)
  • There are five nails on the forefoot and four on the hind foot; the fifth (lateral) nail of the forefoot and both the first (medial) and last (lateral) nails of the hind foot may become worn down or be torn out. (B453.1.w1)
  • There may be families in which there is a tendency for a reduced number of nails. In a study in East Africa, some elephants in the Murchison Falls National Park (Uganda) North bank population showed five and three, four and four or four and three nails on the fore and hind feet respectively; it was noted that individuals within a given group tended to share this characteristic of reduced toenail count. (P17.21.w1)
  • There are usually five toe nails on the forefoot and four on the hind foot. (B451.1.w1)
    • This number varies, probably with a genetic basis. (B451.1.w1)
  • [Note: the number of toe nails varies, but the internal structure, including the development of the bones of the toes (the phalanges), does not]


  • Elephants cannot trot, canter or gallop. (B384.3.w3)
  • Elephants can kick forwards and backwards "with great force." (B384.3.w3)
  • Elephants can walk forwards or backwards at considerable speed. (B453.1.w1)
  • Elephants are able to climb up quite steep boulder areas, and to slide down such boulders, also to walk down a sloping ditch wall if there are surface irregularities. (B453.1.w1)
  • Elephants can stand on their hind legs alone to reach food items which are high up. (B453.1.w1)
  • Elephants cannot trot, canter, gallop or jump. (B453.1.w1)

Details of Bone Structure (Osteology)

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Authors & Referees

Authors Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referees Susan K. Mikota DVM (V.w72)

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