African elephants walk on their tippy-toes

African elephant

African elephants may develop foot problems when they tiptoe across hard surfaces in captivity.

Harvey Barrison/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Elephants don’t wear high heels, but they certainly walk like they do.

Foot problems plague pachyderms in captivity. But it hasn’t been clear what about captivity drives these problems.

Olga Panagiotopoulou of the University of Queensland in Australia and colleagues tested walking in nearly wild elephants. The team trained five free-ranging elephants at a park in South Africa to walk over pressure-sensing platforms to map the distribution of weight on their feet. The team compared the data with similar tests of Asian elephants in a zoo in England.

Regardless of species or setting, a trend emerged: Elephants put the most pressure on the outside toes of their front feet and the least pressure on their heels, the team reports October 5 in Royal Society Open Science. Thus, elephants naturally walk on their tiptoes. The harder surfaces of captive environments must cramp a natural walking style, the researchers conclude.

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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