A Review of Trabecular Bone Functional Adaptation: What Have We Learned From Trabecular Analyses in Extant Hominoids and What Can We Apply to Fossils?

J Anat. 2016 Apr;228(4):569-94. doi: 10.1111/joa.12446. Epub 2016 Feb 16.


Many of the unresolved debates in palaeoanthropology regarding evolution of particular locomotor or manipulative behaviours are founded in differing opinions about the functional significance of the preserved external fossil morphology. However, the plasticity of internal bone morphology, and particularly trabecular bone, allowing it to respond to mechanical loading during life means that it can reveal greater insight into how a bone or joint was used during an individual's lifetime. Analyses of trabecular bone have been commonplace for several decades in a human clinical context. In contrast, the study of trabecular bone as a method for reconstructing joint position, joint loading and ultimately behaviour in extant and fossil non-human primates is comparatively new. Since the initial 2D studies in the late 1970s and 3D analyses in the 1990 s, the utility of trabecular bone to reconstruct behaviour in primates has grown to incorporate experimental studies, expanded taxonomic samples and skeletal elements, and improved methodologies. However, this work, in conjunction with research on humans and non-primate mammals, has also revealed the substantial complexity inherent in making functional inferences from variation in trabecular architecture. This review addresses the current understanding of trabecular bone functional adaptation, how it has been applied to hominoids, as well as other primates and, ultimately, how this can be used to better interpret fossil hominoid and hominin morphology. Because the fossil record constrains us to interpreting function largely from bony morphology alone, and typically from isolated bones, analyses of trabecular structure, ideally in conjunction with that of cortical structure and external morphology, can offer the best resource for reconstructing behaviour in the past.

Keywords: Wolff's law; cancellous bone; cortical bone; functional morphology; hominin; locomotion.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Anthropology / methods
  • Biological Evolution*
  • Cancellous Bone / anatomy & histology*
  • Cancellous Bone / physiology*
  • Fossils*
  • Hominidae
  • Humans
  • Paleontology / methods