The five digits of the giraffe metatarsal

Evolution has shaped the limbs of hoofed animals in specific ways. In artiodactyls, it is the common assumption that the metatarsal is composed of the fusion of digits III and IV, whereas the other three digits have been lost or are highly reduced. However, evidence from the fossil record and internal morphology of the metatarsal challenges these assumptions. Furthermore, only a few taxonomic groups have been analysed. In giraffes, we discovered that all five digits are present in the adult metatarsal and are highly fused and modified rather than lost. We examined high-resolution micro-computed tomography scans of the metatarsals of two mid and late Miocene giraffid fossils and the extant giraffe and okapi. In all the Giraffidae analysed, we found a combination of four morphologies: (1) four articular facets; (2) four or, in most cases, five separate medullary cavities internally; (3) a clear, small digit I; and (4) in the two fossil taxa of unknown genus, the presence of external elongated grooves where the fusions of digits II and V have taken place. Giraffa and Okapia, the extant Giraffidae, show a difference from all the extinct taxa in having more flattened digits tightly packed together, suggesting convergent highly fused digits despite divergent ecologies and locomotion. These discoveries provide evidence that enhances our understanding of how bones fuse and call into question current hypotheses of digit loss.

Last Updated
February 18, 2021