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Specialized walkers

Hey all! Elephant Keeper Caleb here! With summer almost here, the Zoo’s elephants are spending less of their time inside the Zambezi Elephant Center and more time outside exploring their spacious outdoor habitats on the African Savanna! In the wild, African savanna elephants spend most of their lives walking long distances to find resources such as food and water. As the largest land mammals, elephants’ legs and feet are highly specialized to accommodate their heavy weight and active lifestyle.

Elephant limb bones are massive and, unlike most mammals, lack a marrow cavity in favor of dense perforated bone where blood cell manufacturing can occur. This allows the bones to be much stronger and withstand more pressure than in other mammals. Additionally, elephants are built like a dining room table, with legs directly underneath their bodies providing strong structural support to their chests and stomachs.

Elephants are considered digitigrades, meaning they stand and walk on their toes; however, under their skeletal “toes” is a cushiony pad that acts like a human’s heel. Each foot includes five digits that sit atop the cushiony pad with a unique cartilaginous structure attached to the skeleton by tissue and extending into the pad, attaching to the sole and stabilizing the digits over the pad. As the elephant walks, the fleshy pad spreads out and distributes the weight and pressure of the elephant on its foot, acting as a “shock absorber” that allows the elephant to move quietly. And when the elephant lifts its foot, the circumference of the foot shrinks, reducing suction.

The average size of an elephant’s foot is approximately 15-19 inches long and wide – larger than a dinner plate! While elephants have five digits on each foot, not all digits are seen externally. It varies depending on the elephant, but African savanna elephants generally have four toenails on their front feet and three on the rear, each with a cuticle like a human fingernail. Unlike a hoof, elephant toenails are not weight-bearing, but grow approximately 0.5 to 1.0 centimeter per month.

In both of the Zoo’s outdoor habitats and the Zambezi Elephant Center, the elephants walk on sand, which encourages a natural wear on both their constantly growing nails and their callus-like fleshy pads. However, we still regularly check the elephants’ feet to ensure they’re in tip-top shape. After rinsing them off and scrubbing them with soap and water, the Elephant Care Team looks at the nails, the cuticles, and the pads for overgrowth or uneven wear and can trim or file them down as needed.

Elephant footcare is an essential part of caring for elephants at the Zoo, and Kelly, Tara, and Msholo love their regular “pedicure” sessions! After all, a healthy foot is essential to a healthy elephant, and a healthy elephant is a happy elephant!

Caleb U.
Keeper I, Elephants

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