While hooved animals certainly have feet, most of them appear to be lacking toes. But like all walking animals, species with hoofs require toes for balance and for maintaining contact with the ground.
It has long been thought that a modern day horse had one “super toe” on each foot. But scientists have recently made an interesting find concerning the composition of horse feet.
Of all of the animal species with descendants still on the planet, few are better documented than the horse. On Earth over the last 55,000,000 years, the horse has been represented by a number of species. Many of them existed at the same time in different parts of the world.
The Evolution of Horses and Their Feet
The ancient horse was not one of the largest creatures of its times. A number of horse species were initially about the size of a small modern dog. But horses were one of the most rapidly evolving prehistoric mammals. Their feet offer good clues as to these evolutionary changes.
Horses left forests behind and began growing in size millions of years ago. As forest dwellers, they had five distinct toes on each foot. This is seemingly the proper number to have if you want to climb and cling to trees.
But this “toe abundance” gets in the way and slows you down if you want to run rapidly. Because of this, scientists believed that horses did some toe shedding about five million years ago. This might have happened as the animal and its leg bones grew and it moved from forests to plains.
Eventually, the horse’s foot morphed into the hoof we know today, with only a single prominent toe on each foot. Or so scientists thought.
A recent article, published by the Royal Society Open Science explains that these “extra” digits never vanished. They fused instead into one super toe to meet the animal’s changing needs.
Lead study author, Nikos Solounias, explained that:
“All five digits have merged to form the compact forelimb with hooves we know today”.
The other toe remnants are not visible to the naked eye but can be seen with special equipment. Since this toe transformation improved the use of the horse’s foot, it’s possible that further study could be used to eventually help humans with damaged limbs and digits.
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