Fingers and Toes Part 1

gray squirrel

Although this gray squirrel possesses no thumbs and has four feet, it can manipulate objects quite precisely with its forepaws.

With a surprising nimbleness, the gray squirrel snatched up the proffered cracker from a tourist and plopped down in front of everyone to eat it. With considerable skill, it used its forepaws to hold and turn the treat. Not bad, I thought, for a critter without opposable thumbs.

Without a doubt, opposable thumbs garner most of the hype when talking about fingers, and even toes, in some primates. Any animal lucky enough to have opposable thumbs, even rudimentary ones or pseudo-thumbs, has a distinct advantage. That isn’t to say, however, that fingers and toes on other animals are useless. Animals have found many ways to use their fingers and toes and even have specific adaptations where fingers, toes, or both serve them in very special ways.

What is the difference, or is there one, between fingers and toes? That depends. For humans, fingers are on our hands and toes on our feet. In English, we further complicate things by suggesting that two of our fingers, our thumbs, are different. Thus, we could say that we have eight fingers, two thumbs and ten toes despite the saying that a clumsy person is “all thumbs”. In some other languages, there is no word for “toes” so a person has 20 fingers. In French, the toes are called 'doigts de pied' or, 'fingers of the foot'.

In English, we are stuck with fingers and toes though. Just imagine the confusion and mental image when suggesting that someone has 20 fingers or has fingers on his foot or toes on his hand. Perhaps we could simplify everything and refer to them in the clinical fashion of a biologist and just call them all digits.

Not all animals have hands. Most beasts are four-footed, meaning that they don’t have the equivalent of hands, but rather, four feet of similar configuration. Moose and other members of the deer family come to mind as do horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, lizards, turtles and a host of other creatures. As a general rule, four-footed animals don’t use their feet for anything other than locomotion. There are a lot of exceptions to that which I will try to address.

For humans, fingers have three joints and toes have only two and fingers are generally more tactile, or more sensitive to touch and possess significantly more dexterity, although some of this could be cultural as there are many stories of people without fingers learning to use their toes quite skillfully. This may or may not be the case for other animals; there is just a tremendous amount of variation. In general, animals like the squirrel that use their forward feet as hands, are more dexterous. Raccoons, bears, cats and many rodents walk on four feet yet use their forepaws as hands to varying degrees as aids to foraging.

For many animals, fingers and toes have become highly modified to serve a specific purpose. Dogs, cats and birds actually walk on the tips of their toes and the heel is far up the leg. Some toe bones or phalanges, are elongated and the animal actually walks on the distal and intermediate phalanges—two bone segments make contact with the ground—like a human walking on the balls of his feet. This is called digitigrade locomotion.

This is a similar configuration for cloven hoofed animals such as cattle, sheep and deer. However, they walk not on the human equivalent of the balls of the feet, but rather, like a ballet dancer on the tips of their toes. Their hooves are actually the toenails of two toes. The remaining toes have atrophied.

Animals like horses take this one step further, being reduced to a single toe. Their hoof is the toenail of a single toe. Both two and single-toed locomotion is called unguligrade.

Hand and foot modifications have taken animal diversity in some amazing directions. More on that next time.

Help Idaho Wildlife

When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.

C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles! 

See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live. 

And tell them that you heard about it from!

Wildlife License Plates

Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.

No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.

Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.

Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program.

I think it is time we let the Legislature know that Idahoan support wildlife funding and that we would like to see these generic plates come to fruition.

"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson

That is embarrassing, but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.

Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.

Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.

Readers Write:

"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman

"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.

To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version 


Copies are also available at:

Post Register

Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)

Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls

Harriman State Park, Island Park

Museum of Idaho

Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming

Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah

Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho