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From Talons to Toenails


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From Talons to Toenails

Jacqueline Outred


Why is it that you only really notice your toenails when you catch one of them on the corner of your furniture? In between swearing, gasping for breath, trying not to cry (or a combination of all three), all of your attention is on the, otherwise forgotten, pieces of nail at the end of your toes.

At that point, having anything to catch on the corners of your furniture seems like a cruel trick of nature. What else do we even use toenails for anyway? And why do we still have them?

The evolution of the toenail

The nail is called an unguis (a keratin structure at the end of a digit). Similar examples in the animal kingdom are claws, hooves and talons. Our nails evolved from the claws of earlier animals.

In contrast to nails, claws are typically curved ventrally (downwards in animals) and are used for climbing, digging, and fighting, But, today our 'claws', or toenails, are more flat, less curved, and do not extend far beyond the tip of our fingers and toes.  

The modern human has no use for claws (it's a shame, really...) 

While our ancestors used to use their claws to climb trees, scrape, and scratch, we don't need them for that. Today, the primary function of our toenails is to help protect the tip of your toes and the surrounding soft tissues from injury.

So next time you're moaning and clutching your toes after an unfortunate run-in with the furniture, remember that, even though it hurts, your toenails have probably done their job.

Have a question about your feet that no-one else seems to be able to answer? Our knowledge on toenails is just the tip of the iceberg. Email us to ask us about something you've been dying to know: