An elephant’s legs are great straight pillars, in order to support its bulk. These straight legs mean that less muscular power is required to stand; and an elephant may stand for long periods of time without tiring.
Most people are very surprised as to how silently an elephant can move through the bush. This is because their feet have built-in shock absorbers – pads of fatty, fibrous tissue that cushions the impact of the foot on the ground. Most of the weight of the elephant rests on the tip of the toes and the fibrous pad under the ‘heel’. The sole of the foot is ridged and pitted, which contributes to the sure- footedness of the elephant – they are very good climbers of hills, mountains and even cliffs. The circumference of the forefoot is approximately equal to half the shoulder height, so an elephant’s foot size can be used to judge the overall size of a particular animal and its age. Its feet play a role in creating holes in which water can collect, for digging up roots from the ground, and for navigating difficult terrain. Similar to human fingerprints, the pattern of ridges and fissures left behind by the sole of an elephant is actually quite distinctive. In fact it is possible to judge the age of an elephant by its design. Generally, younger elephants have crisp designs, and older elephants have smoother ridges and worn heels.
The fore foot of an elephant has a circular shaped outline and the back foot takes more of an oval shape. However, researchers have found that elongated oval footprints usually indicate an adult male. Bulls typically leave a double print because the rear leg often falls slightly to the side of the front leg. Interestingly, females typically have rounder pads and step more precisely in the same spot with both legs.
An elephants five toes are buried inside the flesh of the foot, but not all toes have toenails. The toenails are actually cornified shields in the skin and are not attached to the fingers/digits. Interestingly, not all of the toes have nails either. Overall, it is generally accepted that the African elephant has four toenails on the front feet and three on the back as opposed to the Asian elephants, which have five on the front and four on the back.
An elephant is a good swimmer and climber but cannot trot, run, jump or gallop. It has only one gait – a sort of gliding shuffle, but this can be stepped up to the speed of a human sprinter. An elephant normally moves at a rate of about 6 km/h but it can reach a top speed of 40 km/h when scared or upset. There are few terrestrial animals that can travel further in a day than an elephant.
Elephants are pachyderms, which means thick-skinned. The skin, over most of the body, is 1-2.5 cm thick but despite this thickness, it is very sensitive. The skin around the mouth and behind the ears is paper-thin. The skin is dotted with mostly underdeveloped patches of black hair (The hair tends to be lighter in colour in very young animals.). The overall colour of the skin is grey, although it often seems brown or even reddish from wallowing in mud holes of coloured soil.
The skin has no sweat glands. Mud trapped in folds of the skin and flapping of the ears help the elephant keep cool. Mud also acts as sunscreen and insect repellent, protecting the animal from sunburn and insect bites. An elephant’s skin is very sensitive to the sun, and most babies are constantly shadowed by their mothers to avoid bad sunburns.