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Tippy Toes

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Tippy Toes

A recent visit by a leopard to NK brought to mind a question that is often overlooked. How can those big cats, muscular and strong, be so quiet and stealthy when they move around.  Even house cats can sneak up on you without a sound and sit next to you before you realize they are there.

The four legged critters in nature are equipped with the perfect structure to accommodate each habit, from jumping like the cats, to slowly walking the terrain like elephants and rhinos. Their feet are especially fascinating. Scientists have learned how the structures of the bones in animals are made to accommodate the smallest mouse to the largest elephant, but the feet have only recently been the focus of some researchers, specifically the predators.

The big cats feet are structured specifically for their purpose. They are toe walkers, that alone allows for a much smaller point of contact to the ground when sneaking around.  If a lions feet were built the same way a mongoose's feet were, they'd have to be about the size of hippo's feet to handle the weight of the cat. Now that would look just a little ridiculous, not to mention it would make hunting a real challenge.  But  Mother Nature, in her ultimate wisdom, has made sure the big cats are perfectly built to hunt. 
If you have a cat, examining the pads will reveal soft pillows...the big cats have the same pads, but they are more calloused and not nearly as soft.  But their purpose is much the same.  The cat runs, walks, and stands all on the clover-shaped pad behind the four toes.  The combination of toe walking and pads creates a very unique and almost silent sound as they move around.  The scientific name is metapodial-phalangeal pad, but for our purpose today, we'll just call them pads, each made of fatty tissue locked in with collagen. 

The difference in the house cats pads and the big cats pads is not only the obvious size, but the density. The larger the cat, the denser the pads which in turn can support more weight.. Research also noted that the pads on the front feet are often different in density from the pads on the back feet. Watch a cat as it prepares to jump from the floor to the table, or the leopard from the ground to the tree, or when they pounce on their prey.  They all put most of their weight on the back legs at the moment of the leap. The extra density in the pads on the back feet helps give them a boost when they launch. 

Landing is another interesting moment. The pads themselves are like shock absorbers, taking in the jolt of the body coming to a sudden stop.  If a giraffe jumped up and down, the chances of broken legs would be almost guaranteed, as his hooves and legs are built for protection and strength, not for jumping.

The big cats, and dogs as well, have what appears as a fifth toe almost halfway up the back of their front legs. Researchers are still puzzled, but think that is an extra “brake”. When the animal comes to a sudden stop or slides in a turn, it may give a little extra grip 

Now the next time your cat tippy toes by you, you'll know why its so quiet, and the next time a big cat suddenly appears on the cam screen, the science behind the silence is now a little less mysterious. 

But wait you say? What about my dog? And the hyenas too? They have pads but they aren't quiet! Ah, that's an easy one...dogs don't have retractable claws. Those exposed claws touch the ground with every step, crunching and snapping little blades of grass, leaves, and small sticks without anything to muffle the sound. While they too walk on their toes, their feet don't have fur between the toes like a cat either. Fur acts as a sound absorber for the cat, and muffles the sounds of the leaves better than the “bare” foot of our canine friends.  Weight distribution is different as well, creating more pressure in the front steps as the dog he walks along, thus more sound.

Now that I think about it, it would be quite fun to watch the giraffe walk on his toes...its a good thing Mother Nature is in charge of how the animals are built and not me!