Story and Photographs By Joan Herrmann
Whereiwander… the two, four, six or eight appendages attached to many living creatures including us, are what we depend on for mobility. Sometimes they are called feet and other time hooves, claws, paws, or talons. Feet can be used for walking, running, climbing, and digging, catching and holding prey and sometimes for self-defense. Some feet are webbed like those of ducks and several different mammals. Some feet are cloven like those of deer and moose which have a divided hoof which is split into two toes. Some feet have toes with nails others have toes with claws. Raptors like the great horned owl have four toes, two that point forward and one that points backward and one that is reversible. The Common Loon (Gavia immer) has legs that are positioned further back on their body making it very difficult for them to walk. However, their powerful legs and feet are used for diving to depths of two hundred feet. Their nests are situated close to the shoreline to provide easier access slipping on and off from it. They must take off and land on water because of their difficulty in walking.
The larva stage of butterflies and moths, also known as caterpillars, always intrigue me. Sometimes it takes a moment or two or a little movement to know if I am looking at the front or the back of a caterpillar. Monarch butterfly caterpillars and the caterpillars of moths have three pairs of legs which are visible behind their head. They also have another five pairs of prolegs. The prolegs are located on segments three, four, five, six (anterior prolegs) and segment ten (anal prolegs) which also assist the caterpillar’s movement. The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexipppus) will taste the host plant milkweed with her foot called a tarsus before laying her egg; to be sure that it is the correct plant. The tarsus contains the chemoreceptor for both taste and smell; therefore she tastes and smells with her feet.
A beaver (Castor canadensis) has webbed hind feet that help it swim and split toenails that assist it with grooming acting much like a comb. The split toenail also helps in applying waterproofing oil from their oil gland and removing parasites and debris from their fur. The beaver’s forefeet are not webbed and are kept balled up against its chest when it swims. The forefeet can carry mud and sticks, dig, handle food and also groom its fur.
A red fox (Vulpes vulpes) uses its feet in many different ways. It will stalk its prey and then pounce on it with its front paws much the same way as a domestic cat. A fox has semi-retractable claws which is also more like a cat than a canine. With their strongly muscled hind legs, they can exert maximum force for push-off when pouncing as much as fifteen feet. This is rather astounding considering that a bullfrog can only leap about six feet and a kangaroo only about three or four feet. During the breeding season when a fox is establishing dominance or territory the males stand on their hind legs and place their forepaws on each other’s shoulders and scream with open mouths while pushing each other. The pushing and screaming may last as much as fifteen minutes or until one gives up. It is easy to identify fox footprints in mud or snow because they create a single straight line of prints. The hind left foot goes into the opposite front right footprint and then the right hind foot into the left front footprint.
The snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus) is truly adaptable to winter; its excessively long feet permit it to travel on the snow’s surface rather than sinking into it. The large triangular back feet have four toes on the widest side. The back feet give ample assistance to the hare in escaping from predators and also an advantage when browsing shrubs. It can stand on its hind legs and reach higher when feeding on shrubs which are also a food source for many animals in winter.
Terrestrial (land) snails carry their home with them and move by gliding on their muscular foot. The snail’s shell protects it from the weather and keeps in moisture, but it does reduce their mobility. A snail’s body is divided into three parts, head, foot, and the visceral mass. The visceral mass contains the digestive, excretory and reproductive organs. Snails produce mucus, abundant amounts of mucus. The mucus is used for locomotion and it also insulates and keeps dirt and germs away. When a snail moves about it leaves a shiny trail from the secreted mucus on which it travels.
Like the snowshoe hare, a ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus) employs a special means of adapting to winter weather. In early autumn the grouse will begin to grow fleshy protrusions called “pectinations” that grow on either side of their toes. This allows them to walk on the top of the snow while also enhancing their grip on icy surfaces. In the spring when they are no longer necessary they will fall off.
A dragonfly’s feet and spiny legs are used for perching and also for capturing prey. The dragonfly will fly towards its intended prey with its three pairs of legs held together like a tunnel-shaped basket. As it flies over the prey the prey becomes ensnared within the spiny legged basket. The legs and feet are also important especially for many female species of dragonflies as they hold onto plant material and lay their eggs. As a dragonfly is transitioning from an aquatic larva to an adult dragonfly both its legs and feet are extremely important to its survival. The newly emerged adult dragonfly must hold on plant material or other surfaces once the legs and feet are dry and then hold on until the wet wings have hardened. They are extremely vulnerable at this stage of life and quite often become prey.
I hope that while out hiking, x-county skiing or snowshoeing our amazing feet crosses each other path.
As a Professional Nature Photographer, Naturalist and Outdoor Educator, Joan Herrmann has been teaching and doing programs for Schools, Garden Clubs, Libraries, and Nature Centers, about 38 years. After moving from the Rochester area in 1995 she began her Photography business, Essence of Nature and also became a co-owner of The Artworks in Old Forge, New York. As a docent at Munson, Williams, Proctor Arts Institute, in Utica, New York she has been educating children and adults, for nineteen years.
In 2007 she began working with the Black River Outdoor Educational Program (BROEP) and in 2013 and 2014 did a week-long summer program at BROEP in conjunction with Mohawk Valley Community College (MVCC). Using her love of both nature and photography she created a Flora/Fauna outdoor educational program teaching students (ages 6 to 14) the joys of nature and creative photography skills.
Joan’s love of nature has been a lifelong study of Birds, Wildflowers, Mosses, Ferns, Trees, Amphibians, Reptiles, Grasses, Insects, Spiders, Tracks, Scat, and Galls. She has assisted in the cataloging of all trails used by the hiking Coaches and photographed and identified seasonal Flora.
Since October 2016 she has been writing a bimonthly nature column with Adirondack Express Newspaper. In October of 2019, she began a bi-monthly column with My Little Falls Newspaper. You may reach her at Jmphoto8442@gmail.com