African elephants walk on their tippy-toes

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

Foot problems plague pachyderm conservation efforts. But it’s not clear if being in captivity causes changes in walking gait that drive these foot problems or whether the environment messes with their natural walking style.

Testing walking in wild elephants is challenging, so evolutionary morphologist Olga Panagiotopoulou of the University of Queensland and her colleagues opted for the closest thing. Researchers trained five African elephants (Loxodonta africana) at a park in South Africa to walk over pressure-sensing platforms to map the distribution of weight on their feet. The team compared their data tosimilar tests of Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) 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, scientists report October 5 in Royal Society Open Science. Thus, elephants naturally walk on their tiptoes, and harder surfaces of captive environments must cramp their walking style. As a potential monitoring system, the pressure plates used in the study could aid conservationists and elephant podiatrists.

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