Study: One Toe is Better Than Multiple Toes for Horses

A single-toe format “outweighed the costs” of multiple-toe formats as horses gained body mass and grew longer legs.
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Study: One Toe is Better Than Multiple Toes for Horses
Researchers found that, particularly in the higher speeds or jumping, most of the fossil bones would have endured significantly higher bone stress than modern horses if the side toes didn’t carry some of the weight. | Photo: iStock

Our horses’ ancestors had four toes in front and three in back. Over the generations, they dropped to the modern-day single toe that ends in the hoof. We’ve known this for a while. But it’s only recently that scientists have finally understood why.

A single-toe format “outweighed the costs” of multiple-toe formats as horses gained body mass and grew longer legs, said Brianna K. McHorse, a PhD candidate in the Museum of Comparative Zoology and Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

“There was some selective pressure, or set of pressures, that conspired to push (some species of) horses in the direction of having a single toe,” she said

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Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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