Curious Congenital Anomalies: Polydactyl and Syndactyl Humans and Cats
Strange genetic anomalies in humans have always appeared around the world. Some popular and familiar examples include conjoined twins, extremely tall people and unusually small people. The two anomalies that have always fascinated me are polydactyly and syndactyly. Both of these conditions are characterized by congenital defects of the fingers and toes and are present in humans as well as animals. Polydactyly causes extra digits to form on the hands or feet, while syndactyly results in the fusing or webbing of the digits.
I first began to take notice of polydactyly while I was reading a novel about Anne Boleyn. It is believed that she had one extra digit on her right hand. It has been said that after she was beheaded, the executioner reached down and secretly chopped off her hand before hiding it inside of his own clothing. After she was taken away for burial, the hand was supposedly hidden and later used for magical purposes. Admittedly, this story probably originates from myths and legends. After an exhumation of Anne Boleyn in 1876, it was discovered that her whole body was perfectly shaped, and her hands were devoid of any extra digits.
Possible Causes of the Conditions
Both polydactyly and syndactyly are known to be caused by errors during fetal development. The diseases are usually inherited, but can be caused by other factors. In the case of syndactyly, while the baby is in the womb, webbed skin between the toes and fingers is supposed to wither away so that digits can form. Occasionally, this does not happen, and syndactyly is the result. These conditions are not widespread problems and normally run in certain families. I have a couple of webbed toes and so did my mother. I like to be different! Most of these traits are isolated and are caused by an autosomal gene. This means they are not sex-linked, so either your mother or father could carry it.
Syndactyly can vary in severity from a small amount of skin being webbed, to the affected toes being fused all the way to the top. Sometimes, the webbing is fused by not only the skin, but also by bone. Syndactyly can be a side effect of cardiac problems when the child is born.
Polydactyly in the News
The most common area for the extra finger to appear is on the side of the hand next to the pinky. The extra digit is not always a real-looking finger. Sometimes, it is just a small, thin piece of skin tissue with a fingernail attached. This extra tissue is not always fully functional, and it may just be one of several extra fingers. Some of these fingers can appear to be either fused all the way up the side of the other nearest finger or just partially fused. One of the most extreme documented cases of polydactyly appeared in March of 2010. Fox News reported that a 6-year-old boy from China was born with 5 extra fingers and 6 extra toes—amounting to 31 fingers and toes altogether. The unnamed child had an operation to remove the extra digits.
Polydactyly: A Multi-Symptom Disease
Cases of polydactyly are usually isolated events, though sometimes their origins turn out to be a bit more complicated. Polydactyly can be caused by other abnormalities that occur when a baby is born with more serious mental or physical defects. The most common causes stem from medicines that were ingested by the mother while she was pregnant, or from toxins in the environment that adversely affected the fetus.
Polydactyly can be symptomatic of one the following more serious diseases:
- Ellis-Van Creveld syndrome (also known as chondroectodermal dysplasia) is an inherited condition caused by defects in two genes known as EVC and EVC2. The strange thing about this disease, is that it is mainly seen within the Old Order Amish population of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
- Rubinstein-Taybi syndrome is a rare condition resulting in a defect of a gene that leads to an issue with the binding process of a protein called CREB. The subsequent condition is known as CREBBP. Some people with this ailment are actually born without the defective gene. Anybody born with CREBBP displays the following symptoms: broad thumbs and toes, shortness in stature, distinctive facial features and mental problems.
- Trisomy 13 is another disease that can cause polydactyly. It occurs when a person's body has three copies of a specific genetic material instead of the usual two from chromosome 13. This is not an inherited disease, and it usually occurs during fetal development in the womb. The DNA from chromosome 13 appears in other parts of the body, causing the extra material to interfere with normal development.
Polydactyl and Syndactyl Cats
For some strange reason, both polydactyly and syndactyly have been observed in cats. The greatest number of toes reportedly found on a cat was 32 back in 1974! The male cat, 'Mickey Mouse', was owned by a Mrs Renee Delgade of Westlake Village, California. Mickey Mouse was believed to have double paws which means each paw formed two fused mirror images.
Obviously, a polydactyl cat has many digits, and a syndactyl cat has less digits (because they are fused together). Evidently, there is a breed called a Maine Coon that is bred to carry on having polydactyl cats!
Famous People With Polydactyly
Gemma Arterton, who plays Agent Fields in the James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, was quoted saying of polydactyly that, 'It's my little oddity, people are really interested, but repulsed at the same time, but I am proud of it'.
She goes on to say, 'My dad had them, and my grandad. I feel we are one step ahead, a sign of things to come', she joked, 'We could do more stuff if we had extra fingers—faster texting, faster e-mailing and better guitar playing'. She also added that she had been born with a number of deformities, including a crumpled ear.
Antonio Alfonseca is a Major League Baseball (MLB) relief pitcher for the Lancaster Barnstormers of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball. Alfonseca also pitched in MLB for the Philadelphia Phillies. He has an extra digit on each hand and foot.
I couldn't conclude this topic without mentioning the most well-known case of polydactyly. For many years, people believed that Marilyn Monroe was polydactyl and had six toes on one of her feet. However, it is now thought that this was just a myth caused by a trick of the light in a photo taken by Joseph Jasgur in March 1946. Since there has been no evidence to the contrary, the story of Marilyn's extra toe has been classified as a myth and legend.
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© 2010 Nell Rose