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< >APPEARANCE/ MORPHOLOGY: LEGS, SPINE AND TRACKS with literature reports for the Forest Elephant - Loxodonta cyclotis: Use sub-contents list below, or simply scroll down the page to view findings.

LEGS, SPINE AND TRACKS - Editorial Comment

Editorial Comment (Editorial Overview Text Replicated on Overall Species page - Loxodonta cyclotis - Forest 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 fissures. 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 legs are thick, columnar and upright; the proximal portions of the limbs are long and the distal portions are short. (B384.3.w3)
  • Elephants are semi-digitigrade (technically, semi-plantigrade). (B384.3.w3)
  • The bones of the foot are supported by a cushion of fat in a fibrous matrix. (B384.3.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)
  • Elephants cannot trot, canter or gallop. (B384.3.w3)
  • Elephants can kick forwards and backwards "with great force." (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)
  • 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 and three on the hind foot. (B147)
  • Typically the forefoot bears five visible toes and the hindfoot four. (B285.w3)
  • There are usually five toenails on each forefoot and four on each hindfoot. (B384.3.w3)
  • The front foot has five nails and the hindfoot has four; 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 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]

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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