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Ý ß APPEARANCE/ MORPHOLOGY: LEGS, SPINE AND TRACKS with literature reports for the Asian Elephant - Elephas maximus: 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 - Asian Elephant - Elephas maximus)

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 downwards when lifted off the ground and splays out when weight bearing. The weight is well distributed, so elephants leave less obvious tracks than might be expected. 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 but there is some genetic variation in nail number (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.

(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, i.e. downwards (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)
  • On average, in adults, the circumference of the forefoot is equal to half the height of the elephant. (B384.3.w3)
  • 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)
  • The fore-foot sole is nearly circular; that of the hind foot is more oval. (B212.w5)
  • There is a large amount of fibro-fatty tissue in each foot, forming a large elastic cushion. (B212.w5)
  • The nails are horny, smooth, yellowish and glossy when clean. They are firmly embedded in the foot-pad. Around the proximal edge is a slight, oily moist exudation. (B212.w5)

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 four, sometimes five, 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)
  • 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)
  • There may be 16 to 20 nails in total, usually 18, with five on each forefoot and four on each hind foot. (B212.w5)
  • [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)

  • See: Asian Elephant Elephas maximus - Detailed Anatomy Notes (Literature Reports)

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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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