Charlotte A. Brassey, Susannah C. R. Maidment & Paul M. Barrett (2017)
Muscle moment arm analyses applied to vertebrate paleontology: a case study using Stegosaurus stenops Marsh, 1887.
Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology Article: e1361432
The moment arm of a muscle defines its leverage around a given joint. In a clinical setting, the quantification of muscle moment arms is an important means of establishing the ‘healthy’ functioning of a muscle and in identifying and treating musculoskeletal abnormalities. Elsewhere in modern animal taxa, moment arm studies aim to illuminate adaptions of the musculoskeletal system towards particular locomotor or feeding behaviors. In the absence of kinematic data, paleontologists have likewise relied upon estimated muscle moment arms as a means of reconstructing musculoskeletal function and biomechanical performance in fossil species. With the application of ‘virtual paleontological’ techniques, it is possible to generate increasingly detailed musculoskeletal models of extinct taxa. However, the steps taken to derive such models of complex systems are seldom reported in detail. Here we present a case study for calculating three-dimensional muscle moment arms using Stegosaurus stenops Marsh, 1887, to highlight both the potential and the limitations of this approach in vertebrate paleontology. We find the technique to be mostly insensitive to choices in muscle modeling parameters (particularly relative to other sources of uncertainty in paleontological studies), although exceptions do exist. Of more concern is the current lack of consensus on what functional signals, if any, are contained within moment arm data derived from extant species. Until a correlation between muscle moment arm and function can be broadly identified across a range of modern taxa, the interpretation of moment arms calculated for extinct taxa should be approached with caution.