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Is there a scientific term for webbed feet in birds?

Sent in by Wayne Murray, Lincolnshire

Yes - there are several terms! Like a bird's bill or beak, its feet can tell us a lot about its lifestyle.

Feet are obviously important to birds for standing and perching, but they can also be a means of propulsion in aquatic species, a major weapon in predatory species and for some birds their equivalent of a hand, being used to grasp and hold objects during feeding.

Most birds have four toes. The first points backwards in most species while the second, third and fourth toes are arranged from the inside of the foot out. The fifth toe is lost completely, except in some birds where it has become a defensive spur, such as the chicken.

The individual characteristics of a species' feet, i.e. size and shape, arrangement and length of the toes and the degree of webbing all depend on what the bird uses its feet for and where it lives.

The feet of birds are all structurally similar but there is variation among species. The most common difference in waterfowl is in the amount of webbing between the birds' toes.

Types of feet

The most common type of webbed foot found in ducks, geese, swans, gulls, terns, and other aquatic birds are known as palmate. Palmate means that three toes are completely webbed, enabling efficient propulsion in water. However, only the front toes are connected, while the toe at the back is separate.

Aquatic birds such as gannets, boobies, cormorants, and pelicans have feet that are known as totipalmate. Totipalmate refers to all four toes being joined by webbing.

Semipalmate feet have partial webbing present only at the base of the front toes, an adaptation that is useful for occasional swimming or walking on soft surfaces. This type is found in some sandpipers and plovers, all grouse, and some domesticated breeds of chickens.

Lobate feet are found in grebes and coots, though some palmate-footed ducks have lobes of skin on the rear toe (or hallux). The front toes have a series of webbed lobes that open and close when the foot is pushed backwards and forwards.

Put your foot in it

The legs and feet of waterfowl play an important role in thermoregulation. To conserve heat in cold weather, waterfowl reduce the amount of blood flowing to their feet by constricting blood vessels in their legs. To further minimise exposure in cold weather, waterfowl will often be seen standing on one leg at time, tucking the other leg into their body feathers to protect it from the elements. They can also release excess body heat through their feet. By standing or swimming in water that is cooler than the air, waterfowl can avoid heat stress on hot days.

Waterfowl also use their feet while flying, almost like a rudder or flaps on an aeroplane. Ducks, geese and swans lower their feet and spread the webbing between their toes before they land, creating drag to help them slow down. When they want to achieve maximum flight speed and efficiency, they pull their feet close into their body, like an aircraft landing gear, to maximise their aerodynamics.

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