Nails and Claws

grizzly claws

Grizzly bear claws can be as long as your finger. Bears use them extensively to dig for food, tear up logs, dig out ground squirrels and excavate dens. They are as essential as teeth to a bear.

I was building a nightstand and dealing with a stubborn screw. Wisdom dictated that a pilot hole or a little wax would make the long screw drive nicely, but I elected for the brute force option, applying a lot of downward pressure on my drill. When the long Phillips head driver bit slipped, it plunged directly for my thumb that was supporting the piece. The spinning bit hit my thumbnail right at the cuticle, ravaged through the matrix (often called the quick) under the nail and tried to pop out the other side of my thumb. That hurt. My podiatrist son tells me that since I tore up the growth center, that nail will always be deformed. Sigh. Another character scar and I miss using that nail already.

It is easy to take something as simple as a fingernail for granted, especially since as humans, our lives really don’t depend on them. They are a tremendous help in protection and for dexterity, but if I lost all of mine tomorrow, I might be grumpy, but I wouldn’t immediately starve. For the rest of the animal kingdom, nails or claws may be far more important. Take a moment and think of your favorite critters—we’ll eliminate fish and snakes right now—and see if it does or does not have a nail or claw or at least a modification of one. Are horses, moose or bison your favorite animals? Their hooves are modifications of their toe nails or claws. Are birds your thing? Off-hand, I can’t think of a single bird without a claw and some, like raptors, have highly developed ones we call talons. All primates have nails and some have even retained the more primitive grooming claw on one digit. Most reptiles have claws and even some amphibians, such as the climbing frogs and hairy frogs have claws. When stressed, one African frog, dubbed the Wolverine frog after the X-Men’s Wolverine character, has claws that rupture through the skin to scratch at attackers.

Humans use tools to accomplish many tasks, and claws may have gotten in the way of our efforts to make and use them. Broad flat nails served us better, improving our grasp and dexterousness.  For many animals though, the development of claws has been critical for their survival. Consider fossorial animals, those that live underground. All that tunneling and earthmoving would not happen without strong claws. Many arboreal animals are similarly dependent on claws for climbing up and down trees and stones. Many predators, such as lions and other cats, use their claws to hold on to their prey. I well remember camping in the Gospel Hump Wilderness long ago and having the horses stampede through camp. After we calmed them down, we inspected each one. On the hind quarters of one mare, we found four parallel scratches on each side—clear evidence that a cougar had tried to get his claws into her in an attempt to get his next meal of horse flesh.

The material that claws and nails is made from is somewhat surprising. It is keratin, the same fibrous protein that hair is comprised of. Hair doesn’t seem to be all that hard, but is durable and flexible, and most important for nails and claws, continuously replaced. Claws that would wear out without replacement would be of little use as they would not last long. In humans, fingernails grow at a rate of about 3.5mm per month and toenails about half that rate. It takes about six months for complete replacement of a fingernail and up to a year for a toenail. In contrast, a cat can replace a claw in two months.

Nails are broad and flat and claws are sharp and pointy, largely because of the shape of the digits. Primate fingers are flat and wide at the end and the nail rests on top of the distal phalange. In clawed animals, the tip of the digit is narrow and the claw grows from the end of it.

It is a little strange that a seemingly small thing such as nails and claws can be so important to vertebrate life on this planet, but it is so. Each animal is finely tuned to its environment, and there are no spare parts.

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