The Company of Biologists Ltd
Studies of limb bone loading during terrestrial locomotion have focused primarily on birds and mammals. However, data from a broader functional and phylogenetic range of species are critical for understanding the evolution of limb bone function and design. Turtles are an interesting lineage in this context. Although their slow walking speeds and robust limb bones might lead to low locomotor forces and limb bone stresses similar to other non-avian reptiles, their highly sprawled posture could produce high bending loads, leading to high limb bone stresses similar to those of avian and mammalian species, as well as high torsion. To test between these possibilities, we evaluated stresses experienced by the femur of river cooter turtles (Pseudemys concinna) during terrestrial walking by synchronizing measurements of three-dimensional joint kinematics and ground reaction forces (GRFs) during isolated hindlimb footfalls. Further, we evaluated femoral safety factors for this species by comparing our locomotor stress calculations with the results of mechanical property tests. The net GRF magnitude at peak tensile bone stress averaged 0.35 BW (body weight) and was directed nearly vertically for the middle 40–65% of the contact interval, essentially orthogonal to the femur. Peak bending stresses experienced by the femur were low (tensile: 24.9±9.0 MPa; compressive: –31.1±9.1 MPa) and comparable to those in other reptiles, yet peak shear stresses were higher than those in other reptiles, averaging 13.7±4.2 MPa. Such high torsion is present despite cooters lacking a large tail, a feature that has been hypothesized to contribute to torsion in other reptiles in which the tail is dragged along the ground. Comparison of femoral stresses to measurements of limb bone mechanical properties in cooters indicates safety factors to yield of 13.9 in bending and 6.3 in torsion, considerably higher than values typical for birds and mammals, and closer to the elevated values calculated for other reptile species. Thus, not only do turtle limb bones seem considerably `over-designed' for resisting the loads that they encounter, but comparisons of bone loading across tetrapod lineages are consistent with the hypothesis that low limb bone loads, elevated torsion and high safety factors may be primitive features of limb bone design.
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