Trabecular Architecture of the Manual Elements Reflects Locomotor Patterns in Primates

PLoS One. 2015 Mar 20;10(3):e0120436. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0120436. eCollection 2015.


The morphology of trabecular bone has proven sensitive to loading patterns in the long bones and metacarpal heads of primates. It is expected that we should also see differences in the manual digits of primates that practice different methods of locomotion. Primate proximal and middle phalanges are load-bearing elements that are held in different postures and experience different mechanical strains during suspension, quadrupedalism, and knuckle walking. Micro CT scans of the middle phalanx, proximal phalanx and the metacarpal head of the third ray were used to examine the pattern of trabecular orientation in Pan, Gorilla, Pongo, Hylobates and Macaca. Several zones, i.e., the proximal ends of both phalanges and the metacarpal heads, were capable of distinguishing between knuckle-walking, quadrupedal, and suspensory primates. Orientation and shape seem to be the primary distinguishing factors but differences in bone volume, isotropy index, and degree of anisotropy were seen across included taxa. Suspensory primates show primarily proximodistal alignment in all zones, and quadrupeds more palmar-dorsal orientation in several zones. Knuckle walkers are characterized by having proximodistal alignment in the proximal ends of the phalanges and a palmar-dorsal alignment in the distal ends and metacarpal heads. These structural differences may be used to infer locmotor propensities of extinct primate taxa.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Locomotion / physiology*
  • Lumbar Vertebrae / physiology
  • Primates / physiology*

Grant support

SM attained the following grants in support of this research: the Wenner Gren Foundation dissertation grant ( and the LSB Foundation dissertation grant ( The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.