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Elephants' "sixth toe" mystery solved after 300 years

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - 02:25

Jan. 10 - The 300-year-old mystery surrounding the existence of a ''sixth toe'' on elephants' feet may have been solved by a team of British-based scientists. Jim Drury reports.

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An elephant uses its trunk to gather food, has notoriously poor hearing and famously, is said never to forget. But now the magnificent beast might be known for a new fact.......its false toes. Scientists at England's Royal Veterinary College have updated the 300-year-old theory of Scottish doctor Patrick Blair, which has divided elephantologists ever since. Blair called the calcium growth on each foot a 'sixth toe', but was repudiated by most experts who said the extra digit was a rod of cartilage. Professor John Hutchinson's team declare that it is in fact an elongated bone, and can be declared a 'false toe'. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR OF EVOLUTIONARY BIOMECHANICS, JOHN HUTCHINSON, SAYING: "I'm holding the left front foot of an elephant here. This is an Asian elephant, a fairly adult animal, and on the first toe there's this crest on the back of the toe pointing into this space where there'd be this giant fat pad of the sole of the foot of elephants, and that crest is where this false 'sixth toe' attaches. It runs off of here and points right into the middle of that fat pad basically." Hutchinson and his colleagues used a variety of techniques - old and new - in their research. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR OF EVOLUTIONARY BIOMECHANICS, JOHN HUTCHINSON, SAYING: "We made this discovery by looking at elephant anatomy, cutting up cadaveric specimens of elephant feet and studying their anatomy in a lot of detail.......We also scanned a lot of fossils to look at their anatomy in three dimensions, using laser and CT scanning, and then we also took elephant feet and put them through a CT scanner while they were loaded with approximately their own body weight one one foot, and this was done using a car jack, basically, to apply a couple of tonnes of load to a whole foot and then see how the structures of the foot would deform under the simulated weight of an elephant." The so-called 'sixth toe' appears crucial to maintaining the elephant's balance, helping to transfer weight from its foot to its bone and ankle joints. It also helps give them their distinctive walk, which has evolved over the millennia as they became larger and more terrestrial....conclusions that Hutchinson says bring an elephantine debate to a close. Jim Drury, Reuters.

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Elephants' "sixth toe" mystery solved after 300 years

Tuesday, January 10, 2012 - 02:25