Science in Fiction: Physiology of a Werewolf
It happens almost every time you’re reading a werewolf book. At some point, you’re reading along, and the author mentions something about the werewolf’s knees bending backwards, usually mid-shift or something. I know, enough to make the average reader cringe a little, right? But for someone with any of the right scientific background, it’s enough to make you flinch, and has certainly been a spot of great frustration for me personally.
Why, might you ask? Because the myth of werewolves is a blend of human and wolf physiology, and neither of them have backward facing knees. You might now be looking at your dog laying passed out on her favorite *cough* dog bed aka couch, and be thinking, “They sure look like they’re facing backwards.”
But in fact, every animal’s skeletal structure is essentially the same, from dolphins to birds to dogs to humans. Some have lost bones along the way and they’re almost always shaped differently, but they’re all aligned and joined in the same ways, so a basic understanding of the human skeleton can go a long way toward understanding all animals. That was one of the most fascinating things about my physiology course in college. These skeletal structures have all essentially come from a single place, and whether you believe in evolution or intelligent design, that makes total sense. Why design the same thing a thousand times, right?
What makes all the difference visually is that humans are among the only species that walk entirely on their feet. Almost every other animal species on the planet walks on their toes, if they walk at all. When you look at a dog’s feet, what you think of as their feet is only a portion of that. The foot actually extends right up to the backward facing bend commonly mistaken as the knee. That is the ankle. The knee is actually in the forward facing curve that doesn’t even really look like it has a joint at all.
In the picture to the left, you can see what I mean. This actually is a very good visual of dogs using their knees, as the one on the right has his knees fully extended, and the one on the left has his knees bent. Dogs, and many other animals, have elongated footbeds (phalanges and metatarsals), and a shortened thigh (femur) and calf bones (tibia and fibula) in comparison to humans.
Knowing this puts you in a rare position as an author, allowing you to accurately describe exactly what is happening as the werewolf shifts from his human to werewolf or wolf forms (depending on your story). If you want a better visual of what the actual skeleton looks like for a wolf, you can find one here and here. I couldn’t find any public domain images to use.
Thank you for reading, and if you have any further questions about animal physiology, or other scientific questions to use in your stories, please ask away, and I will answer them with gusto!
Have a great September!