Tiptoeing Around the Subject

I was out for a walk in the snow the other day wearing my mukluks, something I haven’t done in a while and I forgot just how much fun it is. Because they have no sole, it’s very much like walking around in your socks, but much warmer and your feet stay dry. What I like about it, however, is how much closer you feel to the world you’re walking through. I spend most of my days in hiking boots, which while they afford a great deal of support, also separate you from the ground quite a bit. Mukluks are about as close as you can get to walking through the woods barefoot, which in -20C, is not something I’d recommend.

Anyway, this little expedition got me to thinking about another set of fun words that don’t likely come up in conversation all that often. They’re words that pertain to foot posture.

Not all animals walk the same way. When we’re talking about mammals, we can usually place them into three categories: plantigrade, digitigrade and unguligrade. Today, we’ll start with digitigrade. Dogs (like the wolf, whose print in in the picture) are digitgrade. It means walking on one’s toes. In digitigrade animals, the heel is permanently lifted up off the ground. Take a close look at your dog or cat’s legs and feet. You’d notice the four toes, then the pad in the middle. That’s not the heel. Work your way up a bit and you’ll find it, a hard lump a few inches up the foot.

Plantigrade vs Digitigrade feet

Dogs, cats and other mammals like weasels are essentially walking on their toes. The reason for evolving this type of posture has to do with increasing their stride length. Pay attention next time you’re running. You’ll notice only your toes make contact with the ground. By getting up on our toes, we lengthen our stride and as a result, can cover larger distances. Digitigrade mammals do this all the time, which is why we won’t be outrunning any wolves anytime soon.

All this from a walk in the woods…

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3 thoughts on “Tiptoeing Around the Subject

  1. Fascinating. For some reason reminds me of Muybridge’s experiments with photography to prove that at some point all four of a galloping horse’s hooves were off the ground.

  2. You’ve just informed me that I falsely called the ‘pad’ a ‘heel’ when discussing tracks with a grade 1 class the other day. Ooops? I’ll have to rectify that. Thanks for informing me so pleasantly!

    • It’s an easy mistake to make. I think most people assume it’s the heel. I just spent several years drilling foot postures into the heads of 4th year mammalogy students. It results in a lot of random trivia swimming around in my head 🙂

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