There is no doubt that elephants are unique in a number of ways.  From the complexity of their trunks to the huge fan-like ears, they have captivated the public and biologists for years.  But one mystery has prevailed for over 300 years and that is the bony looking growth on the back of the feet.

First discovered in 1706 when a Scottish surgeon was the first scientist to dissect an elephant, the growth and its function has mystified science for three centuries. For years they believed the growth to be a cartilaginous growth that hardened like bone, but its function continued to elude them until a recent study.

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College Structure and Motion Laboratory used dissection, histology, electron microscopy and CT scans to help solve the mystery.  Led by Professor John Hutchinson, the team discovered that the lump was actually composed of irregularly shaped bone.

It has long been known that elephants walk of the tips of their toes with a large pad to help support the pachyderm’s weight.  And like our toes, all five of the elephant’s toe’s face forward.  To imagine what it’s like to walk on your tiptoes, try to do it for as long as you can and then realize that elephants do that all the time.

While you were trying to walk on your tiptoes, did you notice the tendency to lean forward and the pull on the back of your feet?  Hutchinson and his team believe that the bony growth in the back of the elephant’s foot acts like a sixth toe that points backward and helps to support their tremendous weight.  It could almost be compared to the difference of walking tiptoe and then walking in high heeled shoes with the heel support at the back of the foot.

Elephants are not the only animals to have a sixth digit.  Pandas have an extra digit on the forearms.  They use it like an opposable thumb and it is often referred to as the panda’s thumb.  Moles have an extra digit that they use to help them dig.  In both of these cases, the extra digit is restricted to only one set of limbs, whereas in the elephant, it is found on front and back feet.

Hutchinson then explained that this sixth toe-like bone evolved as elephants evolved into larger and larger animals and that it is vital to the ability of the elephant to be able to stand up on its tiptoes.

The first elephants appear around 55 million years ago.

We looked at early elephants and they had a different kind of foot, which seemed to be quite flat footed and didn’t leave much room for this structure underneath.

The structure seemed to evolve around 40 million years ago, and it seems to have evolved in concert with elephants getting bigger, more terrestrial and having upright feet, with a more tip-toed foot posture.

It is a great example of how evolution tinkers and tweaks tissue to provide different functions – in this case to be co-opted to be used like a digit.

In contrast, I would describe the extra bony appendage as a structure that God designed from the very beginning for the larger members of the elephant family.  As the elephants multiplied and moved off in different directions from where God first created them, they adapted to the different environments they moved into.  Natural selection, a process of adapting to one’s surroundings and which has nothing to do with evolution, spurred those elephant species that stayed large and walked on their tiptoes to grow the larger bony structure at the back of each foot.  Those that grew smaller and walked flat-footed did not need such a large bony support structure.

The sixth toe of the elephant was a design feature from the very beginning and not a product of millions of years of evolution.

Reference

Morelle, Rebecca, Elephant’s sixth ‘toe’ discovered, Dec. 22, 2001.

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