In case you missed the story about this paper released just before Xmas, here are some links to stories about “From flat foot to fat foot: Structure, ontogeny, function and evolution of elephant “sixth toes,” in Science, 2011:
1. The paper (free download from my publications list; nice policy, Science!)
2. Our website about the paper (more imagery goodness!)
5. Reuters TV‘s excellent video
6. Science Now/Wired’s story
7. Daily Mail‘s story (not a daily fail, in this case)
Clarification: it’s not a real sixth toe in elephants; it’s a false, toe-like structure (“predigit”) made from other tissue. That confusion seeped into some media stories. But this whole story ties into the thorny question of what a digit (finger/toe) is and how we can tell (e.g., notions of homology). Regardless, the elephant predigits are present in all four feet, and are super duper cool!
Most importantly for this blog, that research relied, and still relies, on our fabulous freezers to keep the elephant “toes” in snuggly cold conditions until we wanted to study them.
The research is continuing- I’ll post more about that later. We’ve been doing lots more histology to explore the complex ways that these predigits are formed, and also studying how they function (ex vivo) in more 3D detail than before (with new comparisons to rhino feet). Also, a new paper of ours will come out in J Experimental Biology very soon. It elaborates on how whole elephant feet function, across ontogeny, using in vivo pressure patterns.