Biomechanics of phalangeal curvature

J Hum Evol. 2007 Dec;53(6):678-90. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2007.05.011. Epub 2007 Aug 30.


Phalangeal curvature has been widely cited in primate functional morphology and is one of the key traits in the ongoing debate about whether the locomotion of early hominins included a significant degree of arboreality. This study examines the biomechanics of phalangeal curvature using data on hand posture, muscle recruitment, and anatomical moment arms to develop a finite element (FE) model of a siamang manual proximal phalanx during suspensory grasping. Strain patterns from experiments on intact cadaver forelimbs validated the model. The strain distribution in the curved siamang phalanx FE model was compared to that in a mathematically straight rendition in order to test the hypotheses that curvature: 1) reduces strain and 2) results in lower bending strains but relatively higher compression. In the suspensory posture, joint reaction forces load the articular ends of the phalanx in compression and dorsally, while muscle forces acting through the flexor sheath pull the mid-shaft palmarly. These forces compress the phalanx dorsally and tense it palmarly, effectively bending it 'open.' Strains in the curved model were roughly half that of the straight model despite equivalent lengths, areas, mechanical properties, and loading conditions in the two models. The curved model also experienced a higher ratio of compressive to tensile strains. Curvature reduces strains during grasping hand postures because the curved bone is more closely aligned with the joint reaction forces. Therefore, phalangeal curvature reduces the strains associated with arboreal, and especially suspensory, activity involving flexed digits. These results offer a biomechanical explanation for the observed association between phalangeal curvature and arboreality.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Finger Phalanges / anatomy & histology
  • Finger Phalanges / physiology*
  • Finite Element Analysis
  • Hand Strength / physiology*
  • Hylobates
  • Locomotion / physiology*
  • Models, Biological