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What Is a Forelimb?

By Karize Uy
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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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.

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.

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.”

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Discussion Comments
By irontoenail — On Mar 21, 2014

@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.

By pleonasm — On Mar 21, 2014

@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.

By clintflint — On Mar 20, 2014

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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