Paleobiological reconstructions of articular function require all six degrees of freedom

J Anat. 2021 Dec;239(6):1516-1524. doi: 10.1111/joa.13513. Epub 2021 Jul 18.


Paleobiologists typically exclude impossible joint poses from reconstructions of extinct animals by estimating the rotational range of motion (ROM) of fossil joints. However, this ubiquitous practice carries the assumption that osteological estimates of ROM consistently overestimate true joint mobility. Because studies founded on ROM-based exclusion have contributed substantially to our understanding of functional and locomotor evolution, it is critical that this assumption be tested. Here, we evaluate whether ROM-based exclusion is, as currently implemented, a reliable strategy. We measured the true mobilities of five intact cadaveric joints using marker-based X-ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology and compared them to virtual osteological estimates of ROM made allowing (a) only all three rotational, (b) all three rotational and one translational, and (c) all three rotational and all three translational degrees of freedom. We found that allowing combinations of motions in all six degrees of freedom is necessary to ensure that true mobility is always successfully captured. In other words, failing to include joint translations in ROM analyses results in the erroneous exclusion of many joint poses that are possible in life. We therefore suggest that the functional and evolutionary conclusions of existing paleobiological reconstructions may be weakened or even overturned when all six degrees of freedom are considered. We offer an expanded methodological framework for virtual ROM estimation including joint translations and outline recommendations for future ROM-based exclusion studies.

Keywords: XROMM; joint mobility; joint translations; range of motion; vertebrate paleontology.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Fossils*
  • Humans
  • Movement*
  • Range of Motion, Articular