Strange things are afoot!
I spent far too much time over the Winterval thinking about the elephant’s foot. Actually before we go any further, let’s get ‘Winterval’ out of the way – nobody really uses it do they? When someone in Birmingham invented it way back in 1997 (and what a long time ago that is suddenly) I’m sure they had just partaken of a large liquid lunch and never really intended the name to hang around forlornly like the last mince pie.
If you want a nice name for the season that is reasonably ‘safe’, just call it Yuletide. Yes, Yuletide! Have a happy Yule! Put the Yule log on the fire! Great eh? Ok, so it comes from ancient Norse and equates to their winter knees up but I, for one, do not argue with Norse Gods – they are big on storms and thunder and lightning and my fence has just blown down.
So, I spent far too much time over Yuletide thinking about the elephant’s foot. Actually, I should correct myself again before we go any further. I actually spent far too much time thinking about the reporting of news about the elephant’s foot.
What you didn’t hear the news about the elephant’s foot?
Blimey where have you been, Lapland?
Briefly; there was an article published in Science: From Flat Foot to Fat Foot: Structure, Ontogeny, Function, and Evolution of Elephant “Sixth Toes”. Ring any (Yule) bells?
This was an interesting article that showed that elephants have massive sesamoids (small, tendon-anchoring bones) that employ a patchy mode of ossification of a massive cartilaginous precursor to form a pre-digit that acts functionally like a digit. Got it? And please excuse me pachyderm anatomists if I get this wrong, but my knowledge of elephant gross structure is somewhat pachy (arf arf). That is not the point though.
The point was, and is, that the story was picked up by somebody in a ‘news’ department who had hit the sherry very early in the season. It resulted in coverage that – once again – just underlined how poorly science is understood and presented by the regular news channels.
I must have heard a dozen different variations on the story during the day and yes, I do listen to too much radio and watch too much TV. First item about Nellie’s Foot I caught seemed to be saying that it had just been discovered that the elephant has six toes – one Patrick Blair first noticed this apparent extra digit some 300 hundred years ago, not exactly news. Then I was informed (around 11 o’clock) that the elephant had evolved an extra toe in a manner that seemed to suggest that this was something sneaky that they had been getting up to recently – probably while David Attenborough was filming polar bears in the zoo. By lunchtime a certain air of confusion was settling in but the consensus seemed to be that indeed this was a real living, walking extra digit – you know like individuals with polydactyly might have, but in this case being functionally useful.
It isn’t the case at all, of course.
And I was suddenly reminded of the long-running discussion I had with an editor about how many fingers Homer Simpson has on each hand – it’s three plus one thumb for non Simpson lovers. Or is the thumb a finger, in which case it’s four fingers?
No, it’s not Mr Editor – it is four digits!
Homer Simpson evolved from Mickey Mouse and he had four digits too!
You have to take the long view after all, you do not re-jig the whole developmental plan that leads to the foot (elephant’s or otherwise) when evolution can recruit something else that’s ‘handy’ (ouch) and work on that. In this case it was a sesamoid.
It’s sad that this sort of story involves concepts beyond the layman, the theory of evolution is a fabulous thing and part of all our birthrights. But if you can’t report it correctly BBC and chums then please just give up, you gave me a headache that was nothing to do with the sherry.