Whether galloping across an open field at 30-35 mph, jumping an 8-foot fence in stride or clearing a 7-foot fence from a stand still, white-tailed deer are impressive athletes. A steep embankment onto a road is just an opportunity to cross the highway in a single bound.
Though there's no way to know where the best footing is, they seldom slip or fall under normal conditions.
When I watch a deer on the move, my eyes usually concentrate on the big rack or the white flag of a tail. But it is their obscure little feet that deserve the attention. Deer feet, or hooves, are anatomical wonders.
Whether simply running, chasing other deer or evading danger, muscular hind legs propel their movements. The front legs serve as pivot points to make sharp turns. But the hooves make it all possible.
A deer foot consists of two elongated toes. They walk, run, and jump on their third and fourth phalanges. Each toe is capped by a hard, horny toenail that we call the hoof. It's made of keratin, that same material that forms our fingernails.
A clean, healthy hoof is an elegant structure. The black outer nail is hard and strong. It absorbs the shock of every stride and provides traction on soft and wet surfaces. It's also a formidable weapon. The inner portion of the hoof is softer, but still quite tough. It provides a cushion and traction on harder surfaces.
When a deer bounds down an embankment on a worn trail, the sharp outer hooves dig into the bare soil on the trail for traction. When the hooves land on the roadway, the tough inner part cushions the landing. Only when a road or trail is ice-covered do deer slip, stumble or fall. Chased onto a frozen lake by dogs or predators, a fallen deer can be helpless.
Behind and above each hoof are two dew claws, what remains of the second and fifth phalanges. In deep mud or snow, dew claws broaden the foot's platform and show up in a deer track. Under normal conditions, a deer track consists solely of the split hoof.
Before butchering your deer this year, study its feet for a lesson in both form and function.
Scott Shalaway is a biologist and author. His other weekly Post-Gazette column, "GETintoNATURE," is published in the GETout section, available only online and in the early Sunday edition sold Saturdays in stores. Shalaway can be reached at http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com and RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033.