A lion’s claws must be some of the most fearsome weaponry in nature. Not only are they razor sharp and as strong as carbon fibre, but there are 18 of them and they are attached to over 140kg of pure muscle and speed (assuming we’re dealing with an adult lion). Used for gripping prey, fighting and occasionally climbing, they are formidable, and it is no wonder that lions in battle will attempt to attack the rear of their opponent, steering clear of the far more dangerous front end where the opposing claws are most effective and the teeth can also enter the fray.
I think as humans we have very little appreciation for just how lethal a lion’s claws are, as they spend most of their time sheathed and invisible, and it is fortunately only the prey of these big cats – and each other on occasion – that bear the brunt of the claws’ true ferocity.
Knowledge is never a bad thing to have, so we thought we’d go through the ins and outs of a lions claw structure, and explain just how the claws are used.
One of the first mistakes people make is to refer to the claws of a lion as retractible. This is a misnomer, as it implies that the claws’ resting position is out, and the lion has the ability to withdraw them, when in fact it is the opposite; the resting position is in, with the ability to flex them out. Should the claws be out permanently, their rounded shape and keen edge would be blunted, and their effectiveness would be greatly reduced. One only has to look at the claws of any type of dog to see that this is so.
Not only do the claws stay sharp by being sheathed, but the absence of their hard tips being on the outside means the lion is able to stalk more quietly, creeping in on soft, silent pads.
The claws are attached to what are known as the distal phalanges, effectively the equivalent of the outer bones in our fingers and toes. Imagine if our fingernails were attached tightly to the bone, and were a lot harder and sharper, and you’ll get the idea. Claws are basically modified fingernails. Or the other way around, depending on which way you look at it. Whatever the case, the resting position in a lion’s claw mechanism involves that distal phalanx (singular of phalange) folded back against the middle phalanx:
The base of the phalanx on which the claw is found has a tendon attached to it, which is in turn attached to muscles further back in the foot. When these muscles are contracted (e.g. at the moment a lion grabs for its prey) the base of the phalanx is pulled back, rotating it and extending the claw attached to the other end. When that muscle is relaxed, an elastic ligament attached to the top end of the phalanx pulls the claw back up into its sheath.
Dewclaws are a separate thing altogether, and are located on the front legs only, on the inside of the legs and slightly above the paw, almost equivalent to a thumb. These are used almost exclusively for hooking onto prey during the chase or maintaining a grip once the prey has been brought down.
Take a look at the following photos to get an idea of the usefulness of a lion’s claws:
I have personally felt a lion’s claws, and believe me, despite being made of keratin – the same substance that our fingernails are made up of – they are on a completely different level of hardness; breaking a nail isn’t easy for a lion! Imagine those claws being used to help pull a 200kg frame up into a tree and you can begin to appreciate just how strong they need to be.
Adamantium is a fictional alloy from the X-Men series that was used to construct the daggers built into the character Wolverine’s skeleton. I’m sure many of us have seen the movies or remember the cartoon, but looking at it now, I can’t help but chuckle at the fact that this science-fiction character is revered and feared for his incredible weaponry of six daggers attached to his body, when Mother Nature has, of her own accord, already granted lions with three times that number! Slightly amusing, that.