A comparison of primate, carnivoran and rodent limb bone cross-sectional properties: Are primates really unique?

J. D. Polk, B. Demes, W. L. Jungers, A. R. Biknevicius, R. E. Heinrich, J. A. Runestad

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The cross-sectional properties of mammalian limb bones provide an important source of information about their loading history and locomotor adaptations. It has been suggested, for instance, that the cross-sectional strength of primate limb bones differs from that of other mammals as a consequence of living in a complex arboreal environment (Kimura, 1991, 1995). In order to test this hypothesis more rigorously, we have investigated cross-sectional properties in samples of humeri and femora of 71 primate species, 30 carnivorans and 59 rodents. Primates differ from carnivorans and rodents in having limb bones with greater cross-sectional strength than mammals of similar mass. This might imply that primates have stronger bones than carnivorans and rodents. However, primates also have longer proximal limb bones than other mammals. When cross-sectional dimensions are regressed against bone length, primates appear to have more gracile bones than other mammals. These two seemingly contradictory findings can be reconciled by recognizing that most limb bones experience bending as a predominant loading regime. After regressing cross-sectional strength against the product of body mass and bone length, a product which should be proportional to the bending moments applied to the limb, primates are found to overlap considerably with carnivorans and rodents. Consequently, primate humeri and femora are similar to those of non-primates in their resistance to bending. Comparisons between arboreal and terrestrial species within the orders show that the bones of arboreal carnivorans have greater cross-sectional properties than those of terrestrial carnivorans, thus supporting Kimura's general notion. However, no differences were found between arboreal and terrestrial rodents. Among primates, the only significant difference was in humeral bending rigidity, which is higher in the terrestrial species. In summary, arboreal and terrestrial species do not show consistent differences in long bone reinforcement, and Kimura's conclusions must be modified to take into account the interaction of bone length and cross-sectional geometry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)297-325
Number of pages29
JournalJournal of Human Evolution
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2000
Externally publishedYes


  • Bending moment
  • Cross-sectional properties
  • Primate locomotion
  • Scaling
  • Substrate preference

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology


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