, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 281-345

Anatomy of the hominoid wrist joint: Its evolutionary and functional implications

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Abstract

Observations on the behavior of living hominoids show generic differences in the use and posture of the wrist joint. Both orang-utans and hylobatids usually use the wrist in suspensory behaviors. However, orang-utans emphasize markedly adducted and flexed wrist postures, while hylobatids emphasize violent forearm and wrist rotation. African apes, especially the gorilla, use the wrist more frequently than other hominoids for terrestrial quadrupedal weight-bearing. Humans use the wrist less frequently for supportive purposes than do other hominoids. These behavioral differences correspond to structural specializations in the proximal carpal joint of each of the hominoid genera. Although each of the hominoid genera has apparently modified its proximal carpal joint best to serve its characteristic behaviors, all hominoids share a unique proximal carpal joint that permits approximately 160ℴ of forearm rotation. The hylobatid proximal carpal joint is specialized in exhibiting a marked development of those structures limiting forearm rotation, but it is in most respects the least derived— that is, closest to the nonhominoid anthropoids. Chimpanzees show a proximal carpal joint that is more generalized than those of the other great apes but more derived than that of hylobatids. The human and gorilla proximal wrist joints, on the other hand, show marked modifications for weight-bearing in terrestrial behaviors. Orang-utans have the most derived proximal carpal joint, which in many respects parallels that of the slow-climbing nonhominoid primates. The comparative anatomy and structural specializations of the wrist joint support (a) an early divergence of hylobatids from the common hominoid stock, (b) a common ancestry for gorillas and humans separate from the other hominoids, and (c) a long independent evolutionary period for orang-utans since their divergence from the common hominoid stock, or one that was marked by strong selection pressures for wrist specializations. Unfortunately, the generalized condition of the chimpanzee’s wrist joint and the very derived condition of the orang-utan wrist provide uncertain evidence as to which of the two was first to diverge from the common hominoid stock. Identification of hominoid wrist specializations as reflecting real phylogenetic relationships or parallelisms depends on how well the phytogeny inferred from wrist morphology accords with those arrived at from the study of other systems.