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What Is a Forelimb?

Karize Uy
Karize Uy

A forelimb is a part of the body that refers to the limb located nearer to the head, or the upper part of the torso. It is often seen in many four-legged animals or “quadrupeds,” such as horses, cheetahs, and dogs, and is often referred to as the foreleg. In humans, the arm is the equivalent of this body part, stretching from the shoulder down to the fingertips. The forelimb is the corresponding part of the hind limbs, or the hind legs.

As compared to the hind leg, the forelimb generally has a shorter length and bears more of the animal’s weight. This provides the animal with more balance and stability and gives the animal a certain momentum when running, since the body is naturally leaning forward. In fact, when a horse is running, one of its forelimbs carries the animal’s entire weight for just a split second.

The forelimbs of whales have evolved into flippers.
The forelimbs of whales have evolved into flippers.

Generally, the forelimb consists of three or four major segments, as observed in a human arm that has the upper arm, the forearm, and the hand as the three segments. Many animals have common bones in the forelimbs, such as the humerus in the upper segment, the radius and the ulna in the lower section, and the phalanges that refer to the bones in the paws or hooves. The carpals are the bones that usually connect the paws to the lower segment of the limb. The segmented characteristic of the forelimb anatomy allows animals to have flexible movements and reduces the occurrence of serious injuries.

A horse's forelimbs are connected to the body by muscles and tendons, not bones.
A horse's forelimbs are connected to the body by muscles and tendons, not bones.

It is an interesting fact that the forelimbs of some animals, like the horse and the cats, are not even connected to the skeleton by bones. They are actually attached to the body via muscles and tendons. A person can even cut off one of the horse’s forelimbs without experiencing any obstruction from a single bone.

Forelimbs are usually a part of a mammal’s body, but are not usually seen in some mammals such as the whale, seal, and the bat and in birds and fishes. The flipper and the wing, however, are considered the equivalent of the forelimb and even share the same kind of bones with the forelimbs. This occurrence is said to be homologous, which means that some body parts of many animals have the same structure. Many evolutionists interpret homology as evidence of evolution and that animals come from the same ancestor. Creationists, however, consider homology as proof of an “intelligent design.”

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a forelimb and what are its primary functions?

Cats and dogs have forelimbs.
Cats and dogs have forelimbs.

A forelimb is an upper limb located at the front of an animal's body, typically used for locomotion, manipulation of the environment, or feeding. In mammals, forelimbs can evolve into wings, arms, or flippers, aiding in flight, grasping, or swimming, respectively. The versatility of forelimbs is a testament to the adaptive nature of vertebrate evolution.

How do forelimbs differ among various animal species?

A bat's wings are considered its forelimbs.
A bat's wings are considered its forelimbs.

Forelimbs vary widely among animals, reflecting their diverse lifestyles. For instance, birds have wings for flight, while cetaceans have flippers for swimming. Terrestrial animals like felines and canines possess legs designed for running and stability. Primates, including humans, have arms with hands capable of intricate manipulation and tool use, highlighting the specialization of forelimbs across species.

Can you give examples of specialized forelimbs and their adaptations?

The hand is part of a human's forelimb.
The hand is part of a human's forelimb.

Specialized forelimbs include the bat's wings, which are adapted for flight with a membrane stretched over elongated finger bones. The mole's forelimbs are adapted for digging, with broad paws and strong claws. Elephants have trunk-like forelimbs with versatile appendages for grasping and manipulation, showcasing nature's ingenuity in adapting forelimbs to specific ecological niches.

What evolutionary advantages do modified forelimbs provide?

Modified forelimbs provide significant evolutionary advantages by enabling species to exploit a variety of ecological niches. For example, the prehensile tails of some primates allow for arboreal locomotion, increasing access to food and escape routes from predators. Aquatic mammals with flipper-like forelimbs can navigate water efficiently, enhancing their ability to hunt and evade threats in marine environments.

How do forelimbs contribute to an animal's survival and reproduction?

Forelimbs contribute to an animal's survival by facilitating essential behaviors such as hunting, foraging, and escaping predators. They also play a crucial role in reproductive success, as seen in courtship displays, nest building, and caring for offspring. The adaptability of forelimbs ensures that animals can meet the challenges of their environments and continue their lineage.

Are there any animals that have lost their forelimbs through evolution?

Yes, some animals have lost their forelimbs through evolution. Snakes are a prime example, having evolved from four-limbed ancestors to a limbless state, which aids in their slithering locomotion and allows them to inhabit narrow burrows. This evolutionary trade-off demonstrates how certain species can thrive without forelimbs by adapting to specific ecological demands.

Discussion Comments


@pleonasm - I don't know all the medical details, but I can't imagine there would be an evolutionary advantage in being able to heal bone injuries for a horse. They depend too much on being able to run away from predators. If a smaller animal has an injured foot, it might be able to hide, but a horse is too big. It's better to put those resources elsewhere.

Not to mention, it's easy to forget that they use their forelimbs as legs, so they can never fully rest them without being kept completely still, which could cause other medical problems. We can just bind up a broken arm and carry on with our day, or sit down with a broken leg and keep using our arms. Their limbs are a complete set, so if one goes, the rest are pretty useless.


@clintflint - So you weren't a big fan of that film, Avatar? Because they seemed to slap random limbs onto those animals as long as it made them look scary.

I wonder if the fact that the bones are not attached to the main skeleton in horses is the reason why they often have to be put down when they have a leg injury. I know they have trouble healing leg injuries but I don't know why.


I've always liked it when writers draw on this kind of thing to make their science fiction or fantasy more realistic. The fact is that it would be very unusual for a creature to have, for example, wings and arms and legs, because that would mean they basically evolved an extra set of limbs which doesn't seem to happen very often.

I mean, I don't mind if they do have six limbs, but it should be consistent throughout the whole ecosystem.

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    • The forelimbs of whales have evolved into flippers.
      By: apfelweile
      The forelimbs of whales have evolved into flippers.
    • A horse's forelimbs are connected to the body by muscles and tendons, not bones.
      By: Eric Isselée
      A horse's forelimbs are connected to the body by muscles and tendons, not bones.
    • Cats and dogs have forelimbs.
      By: jagodka
      Cats and dogs have forelimbs.
    • A bat's wings are considered its forelimbs.
      By: Valeriy Kirsanov
      A bat's wings are considered its forelimbs.
    • The hand is part of a human's forelimb.
      By: Anastasia Tsarskaya
      The hand is part of a human's forelimb.