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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Different evolutionary pathways underlie the morphology of wrist bones in hominoids

Tracy L Kivell12*, Anna P Barros3 and Jeroen B Smaers345

Author Affiliations

1 School of Anthropology and Conservation, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK

2 Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany

3 Department of Anthropology, University College London, London, UK

4 Department of Anthropology, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, USA

5 Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, University College London, London, UK

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BMC Evolutionary Biology 2013, 13:229  doi:10.1186/1471-2148-13-229

Published: 23 October 2013



The hominoid wrist has been a focus of numerous morphological analyses that aim to better understand long-standing questions about the evolution of human and hominoid hand use. However, these same analyses also suggest various scenarios of complex and mosaic patterns of morphological evolution within the wrist and potentially multiple instances of homoplasy that would benefit from require formal analysis within a phylogenetic context.

We identify morphological features that principally characterize primate – and, in particular, hominoid (apes, including humans) - wrist evolution and reveal the rate, process and evolutionary timing of patterns of morphological change on individual branches of the primate tree of life. Linear morphological variables of five wrist bones – the scaphoid, lunate, triquetrum, capitate and hamate – are analyzed in a diverse sample of extant hominoids (12 species, 332 specimens), Old World (8 species, 43 specimens) and New World (4 species, 26 specimens) monkeys, fossil Miocene apes (8 species, 20 specimens) and Plio-Pleistocene hominins (8 species, 18 specimens).


Results reveal a combination of parallel and synapomorphic morphology within haplorrhines, and especially within hominoids, across individual wrist bones. Similar morphology of some wrist bones reflects locomotor behaviour shared between clades (scaphoid, triquetrum and capitate) while others (lunate and hamate) indicate clade-specific synapomorphic morphology. Overall, hominoids show increased variation in wrist bone morphology compared with other primate clades, supporting previous analyses, and demonstrate several occurrences of parallel evolution, particularly between orangutans and hylobatids, and among hominines (extant African apes, humans and fossil hominins).


Our analyses indicate that different evolutionary processes can underlie the evolution of a single anatomical unit (the wrist) to produce diversity in functional and morphological adaptations across individual wrist bones. These results exemplify a degree of evolutionary and functional independence across different wrist bones, the potential evolvability of skeletal morphology, and help to contextualize the postcranial mosaicism observed in the hominin fossil record.

Carpal; Functional morphology; Locomotion; Phylogeny; Variable rates estimation