Elephants are fascinating for lots of reasons: their ability to care for each other, those incredible adapted trunks, and the ability to fight climate change. One element of an elephant that doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves is their feet. But we’re here to prove that those four enormous tootsies are just as incredible as the rest of them.
Let’s start with the basics. According to Kynsa Elephant Park, the circumference of an elephant's foot is roughly equal to half the height of their shoulder. While this might be a best guess used to help judge the age of an individual, the average elephant foot is around 40-50 centimeters (16-20 inches) in diameter depending on species.
Most people agree that elephants have five toes, though the toenails vary depending on the elephant species. African forest elephants and Asian elephants have front feet with five toes and five toenails each, while their back feet only have four toenails. African bush elephants have four toenails on the front and three on the back, according to A-Z Animals.
“The unique structure of the foot must clearly be considered a key innovation," Matthew Vickaryous, a vertebrate morphologist at the University of Guelph in Canada, told Science. "The elephant foot is deceptively complex."
There was even a study suggesting that elephants might have a sixth toe based on a structure within the fat pad of the surface. Given that the toes are pretty vertical to the floor, the arrangement of the bones of the foot suggests that elephants are actually walking on tiptoe with their wrists or heels clear of the ground. The sixth “toe” was discovered to be similar to a toe, but is actually a large lump of cartilage that helps support the weight of the massive mammal above it.
There is also some suggestion that elephants can hear through their feet. While their impressively large ears can pick up sounds from a considerable distance away, evidence suggests that low-frequency vibrations caused by other animals can be picked up in the pachyderm's foot pads and transmitted to their brain via bone conduction.
This is because their feet are full of receptors called Pacinian corpuscles. These are connected to the part of the brain that processes touch. Technically, when elephants “hear” through their feet it’s actually the touch sense that’s being used. But a combination of this method and traditional hearing can help the elephants make decisions based on sounds.
A review of research in this area mentioned a study that involved playing predator alarm calls through an above-ground speaker, and found that the elephants quickly left the area. When the same sound was transmitted underground, the elephants stayed where they were but moved closer together suggesting that their feet, as well as their ears, are just as important in processing the world around them.
Elephants are always on the move and can travel as many 56 kilometers (35 miles) or more in a day in the pursuit of food and water. Not only do their four feet get them to where they need to be, they help keep the elephants safe along the way.