The effects of locomotion on the structural characteristics of avian limb bones

Michael B. Habib, Christopher B. Ruff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Despite the wide range of locomotor adaptations in birds, little detailed attention has been given to the relationships between the quantitative structural characteristics of avian limb bones and bird behaviour. Possible differences in forelimb relative to hindlimb strength across species have been especially neglected. We generated cross-sectional, geometric data from peripheral quantitative computed tomography scans of the humerus and femur of 127 avian skeletons, representing 15 species of extant birds in 13 families. The sample includes terrestrial runners, arboreal perchers, hindlimb-propelled divers, forelimb-propelled divers and dynamic soarers. The hindlimb-propelled diving class includes a recently flightless island form. Our results demonstrate that locomotor dynamics can be differentiated in most cases based on cross-sectional properties, and that structural proportions are often more informative than bone length proportions for determining behaviour and locomotion. Recently flightless forms, for example, are more easily distinguished using structural ratios than using length ratios. A proper phylogenetic context is important for correctly interpreting structural characteristics, especially for recently flightless forms. Some of the most extreme adaptations to mechanical loading are seen in aquatic forms. Penguins have forelimbs adapted to very high loads. Aquatic species differ from non-aquatic species on the basis of relative cortical thickness. The combination of bone structural strength and relative cortical area of the humerus successfully differentiates all of our locomotor groups. The methods used in this study are highly applicable to fossil taxa, for which morphology is known but behaviour is not. The use of bone structural characteristics is particularly useful in palaeontology not only because it generates strong signals for many locomotor guilds, but also because analysing such traits does not require knowledge of body mass, which can be difficult to estimate reliably for fossil taxa.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)601-624
Number of pages24
JournalZoological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2008


  • Adaptation
  • Aves
  • Biomechanics
  • Functional morphology
  • Skeleton

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Animal Science and Zoology


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