DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2023.0251 ISSN:

A functional framework for interpreting phalangeal form

Edwin Dickinson, Melody W. Young, Nicholas D. Flaim, Aleksander Sawiec, Michael C. Granatosky
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Biochemistry
  • Biomaterials
  • Bioengineering
  • Biophysics
  • Biotechnology

Across tetrapods, the proportional lengths of the manual and pedal phalanges are highly constrained, following a generalized blueprint of shortening in a proximodistal gradient. Despite this, several lineages of both mammals (e.g. sloths, bats and colugos) and birds (e.g. raptors, parrots and woodpeckers) have broken this pattern, shortening the proximal phalanx while elongating more distal elements. As yet, no unifying explanation for this convergence has been empirically evaluated. This study combines a comparative phylogenetic assessment of phalangeal morphology across mammals and birds with a novel bioinspired robotics approach to explicitly test functional hypotheses relating to these morphotypes. We demonstrate that shortening the proximal phalanx allows taxa to maximize forces produced at the proximal interphalangeal joint, while elongation of subsequent elements maintains total ray length—ensuring arboreal species can still enclose large-diameter supports. Within suspensory and vertically clinging mammals, we additionally observe a secondary adaptation towards maximizing grip strength: namely increasing the height of the trochleae to increase the moment arm of digital flexor muscles that cross the joint. Together, our analyses highlight that numerous tetrapod lineages independently converged upon this morphotype to maximize proximal gripping strength, an adaptation to support specialized hunting and locomotor behaviours.

More from our Archive