Khanyisa's Big Feet

May 4, 2020

With a hop, a skip, and a jump, Khanyisa leapt into our hearts.

Actually, that's not entirely accurate. Khanyisa is a perfectly ordinary child in many, many ways, but unlike spring-footed bouncy human toddlers, she has her own running style, a cute elephantine combination of wobbling, stumbling, shuffling and lurching. The exuberant running, jumping and skipping that is so natural for many Homo sapien children - as much as swinging from branch to branch is for primates - is not an option for elephant calves. They can't jump, they must remain, always, with one foot on the ground.

Elephants can gambol, frolic and romp, they can even stand on their back legs to reach for the stars (or marula fruit), as long as they remain firmly rooted to the Earth. But unfortunately, they simply aren't built for flight.

Watch Khanyisa as she picks up speed on her walkabout.

While other large mammals like rhinos and hippos would also struggle with an Animal Olympics version of the hop-skip-and-jump (or triple jump as it is sometimes known) they can, at least, bounce a bit while jogging. The elephant is the only mammal that never, even when running, lifts all four feet off the dusty African ground. There is actually doubt that adult elephants run as opposed to speed walk. Studies using extremely sturdy force plates seem to show that these animals' front legs trot while their rear legs walk.

The elephant's left hind foot moves, then the left front foot moves, waits a bit, then the right hind foot moves, the right front foot moves and then there's a pause before they repeat. No, not a new dance move, it's just the way elephants move. They don't break into a canter, they don't lope or gallop, they just walk slowly, quickly and sometimes intimidatingly fast.

Look at those paws! Young Khanyisa lying with her friend, Adine's son, Xander at HERD.

Elephant feet are, not surprisingly, big.

In a study undertaken by German researchers in Uganda, water-filled elephant footprints were found to house mites, mayflies, backswimmers, leeches, gastropods, tadpoles and many more of up to 61 different aquatic macroinvertebrate species. Up to 30cm deep and with a diameter of 50cm, elephant footprints become the homes for these small and seemingly insignificant creatures that prop up the bottom of the food web.

Elephants use their feet to dig for water in the dry season and, by so doing, expose underground water to many other thirsty animals. They crash their feet into the hard, dry African ground, kicking up dust first as a warning, then as a threat and then, always keeping at least one massive foot on the shaking ground, they charge.

Khanyisa's future mother in the Jabulani herd, Lundi's big feet.
Khanyisa's future allomother, Klaserie's feet .

They tip-toe silently through forests on feet that mould over objects on the ground thereby effectively smothering the sound of breaking sticks. The feet of these mud-lovers are designed to reduce the suction of mud by spreading out under several thousand kilograms of elephant body weight but shrinking in circumference as they are lifted from the mud.

Khanyisa on a walkabout, step by step, with the Jabulani herd.
The underside of Khanyisa's currently still little-ish feet.

Elephants belong to a group called near-ungulates which means that they have toenails rather than hooves.

Baby elephants, after a 22 month gestation period, are born with long toenails which need to be worn down by walking. It will take many years to transform those cute baby feet, but one day they will be used to flatten trees and to 'feel' sounds.

In a marvel of synchronicity, an adult elephant's feet develop a 'tread pattern' reminiscent of the cracked clay mud around dried up waterholes, feet that listen to the rumbling underground sounds of Africa. 

Both the feet and the trunk of the African elephant contain Pacinian corpuscles, which have been shown to assist with seismic communication. African elephants, like many mammals, are able to detect vibrations in the earth, the golden mole has specially adapted inner ears and the elephant uses its supersized feet and trunk. The low rumble and heavy step of the African elephant can travel for many kilometres underground delivering a message not meant for us. 

Khanyisa is still learning. It will take her a while to master the biggest 'nose', the biggest ears and the biggest feet in Africa, but when she does there will be no holding her down.

Preparing to be weighed, little growing Khanyisa at HERD.

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