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Positional behaviors and the neck: a comparative analysis of the cervical vertebrae of living primates and fossil hominoids

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Despite the critical role that the vertebral column plays in postural and locomotor behaviors, the functional morphology of the cervical region (i.e., the bony neck) remains poorly understood, particularly in comparison to that of the thoracic and lumbar sections. This

Despite the critical role that the vertebral column plays in postural and locomotor behaviors, the functional morphology of the cervical region (i.e., the bony neck) remains poorly understood, particularly in comparison to that of the thoracic and lumbar sections. This dissertation tests the hypothesis that morphological variation in cervical vertebrae reflects differences in positional behavior (i.e., suspensory vs. nonsuspensory and orthograde vs. pronograde locomotion and postures). Specifically, this project addresses two broad research questions: (1) how does the morphology of cervical vertebrae vary with positional behavior and cranial morphology among primates and (2) where does fossil hominoid morphology fall within the context of the extant primates. Three biomechanical models were developed for the primate cervical spine and their predictions were tested by conducting a comparative analysis using a taxonomically and behaviorally diverse sample of primates. The results of these analyses were used to evaluate fossil hominoid morphology. The two biomechanical models relating vertebral shape to positional behaviors are not supported. However, a number of features distinguish behavioral groups. For example, the angle of the transverse process in relation to the cranial surface of the vertebral body--a trait hypothesized to reflect the deep spinal muscles' ability to extend and stabilize the neck--tends to be greater in pronograde species; this difference is in the opposite of the direction predicted by the biomechanical models. Other traits distinguish behavioral groups (e.g., spinous process length and cross-sectional area), but only in certain parts of the cervical column. The correlation of several vertebral features, especially transverse process length and pedicle cross-sectional area, with anterior cranial length supports the predictions made by the third model that links cervical morphology with head stabilization (i.e., head balancing). Fossil hominoid cervical remains indicate that the morphological pattern that characterizes modern humans was not present in Homo erectus or earlier hominins. These hominins are generally similar to apes in having larger neural arch cross-sectional areas and longer spinous processes than modern humans, likely indicating the presence of comparatively large nuchal muscles. The functional significance of this morphology remains unclear.

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2013