|Why do we have toes?
|Question Date: 1999-04-20|
Our toes do two very important things for us.
Firstly, the toes, especially the big toe, help us
balance. To test this, try standing on one foot
with none of your toes touching the ground. After
a while, relax your toes and let them touch the
ground again. I'll bet balancing on one foot is a
lot easier using your toes!
The second thing
toes do for us is to help propel us forward while
we are walking or running. The toes give that last
little push off. (If you've ever walked in ski
boots you know how difficult it is to go very fast
when your toes can't bend at the end of your step.
If you want you can try this one out too by
strapping some short but stiff boards onto the
bottom of your feet and trying to walk around.) In
animals that climb trees, the toes are very
important for grabbing and for hanging on. (Claws
help too of course!) A random fact: the 14 bones
of the toes are among the smallest in the human
Well, when evolutionary ecologists want to answer
a question like that, we start by looking for
patterns, like: who has toes and who doesn't?If we
look at mammals (animals that give milk to their
young and have hair), the only ones I can think of
that don't have toes are marine mammals like
dolphins and whales. This means that it would be
odd NOT to have toes unless there were a really
good reason to lose them over evolutionary time.
Marine mammals don't even have legs except for
tiny leg bones deep inside their bodies. Clearly,
having a tail as a water propeller works better
than kicking with legs.
Our toes don't
cause us any problems, so we wouldn't expect to
lose them, but are they important to us? Most
primates (such as monkeys and chimps) use their
toes to grab trees. Obviously, ours aren't good
for that. Do they help us walk, run, and jump? I
think they help to stabilize us and help us push
off the ground, but judge for yourself.
branch of science that looks at questions like
that is called "biomechanics". These scientists
look at movies and computer animations to study
how we move and related issues, like "What's the
best way to throw a ball?" For a computer
animation of a runners, gymnasts, etc., go to
http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu/animation/ . (You
can "cut and paste" the address.) Another
simulation of walking can be found at
click on the picture. How do the toes fit in?
NASA has some really cool visuals of the human
body, but if you're easily grossed out by bones
and such, don't go
Actually, I can't aswer the question "why" in this
context -- however, I can possibly shed some light
on the related question: "Of what use are
Given that we didn't evolve in shoes
-- much of this discussion should talk about toes
in bare feet. Even without this proviso,much of
the support of the body during walking is in the
toes, about 75 percent on the two largest toes and
the ball of the foot. If you don't believe this,
try walking with your toes raised as high as
possible... Further, toes on the end of the foot
add considerable length to the power stride of a
runner or running man. Men are not fast runners --
however, they can run for very long periods of
time -- only dogs have a comparable range. There
are still several tribes of men which hunt fleet
antelope by simply running them to exhaustion. In
a distance stride, most of the impact is on the
ball of the foot -- but the toes provide a longer
stride for the long muscles in the legs.
second use of toes is balance-- we are specially
adapted to walking on two legs and toes provide a
way to maintain balance on very uneven terrain. If
you have ever ice skated -- especially figure
skated, you will have suffered from toe cramps -
caused by the toes trying to right a tilted skate
with insufficient purchase. However, in a good
figure skater, the toe muscles are so developed,
they can skate well and do many tricks with the
laces very loose-- just on the balance provided by
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