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From Flat Foot to Fat Foot: Structure, Ontogeny, Function, and Evolution of Elephant “Sixth Toes”

Science  23 Dec 2011:
Vol. 334, Issue 6063, pp. 1699-1703
DOI: 10.1126/science.1211437

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Abstract

Several groups of tetrapods have expanded sesamoid (small, tendon-anchoring) bones into digit-like structures (“predigits”), such as pandas’ “thumbs.” Elephants similarly have expanded structures in the fat pads of their fore- and hindfeet, but for three centuries these have been overlooked as mere cartilaginous curiosities. We show that these are indeed massive sesamoids that employ a patchy mode of ossification of a massive cartilaginous precursor and that the predigits act functionally like digits. Further, we reveal clear osteological correlates of predigit joint articulation with the carpals/tarsals that are visible in fossils. Our survey shows that basal proboscideans were relatively “flat-footed” (plantigrade), whereas early elephantiforms evolved the more derived “tip-toed” (subunguligrade) morphology, including the predigits and fat pad, of extant elephants. Thus, elephants co-opted sesamoid bones into a role as false digits and used them for support as they changed their foot posture.

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