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Atavistic and vestigial anatomical structures in the head, neck, and spine: an overview

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Organisms may retain nonfunctional anatomical features as a consequence of evolutionary natural selection. Resultant atavistic and vestigial anatomical structures have long been a source of perplexity. Atavism is when an ancestral trait reappears after loss through an evolutionary change in previous generations, whereas vestigial structures are remnants that are largely or entirely functionless relative to their original roles. While physicians are cognizant of their existence, atavistic and vestigial structures are rarely emphasized in anatomical curricula and can, therefore, be puzzling when discovered incidentally. In addition, the literature is replete with examples of the terms atavistic and vestigial being used interchangeably without careful distinction between them. We provide an overview of important atavistic and vestigial structures in the head, neck, and spine that can serve as a reference for anatomists and clinical neuroscientists. We review the literature on atavistic and vestigial anatomical structures of the head, neck, and spine that may be encountered in clinical practice. We define atavistic and vestigial structures and employ these definitions consistently when classifying anatomical structures. Pertinent anatomical structures are numerous and include human tails, plica semilunaris, the vomeronasal organ, levator claviculae, and external ear muscles, to name a few. Atavistic and vestigial structures are found throughout the head, neck, and spine. Some, such as human tails and branchial cysts may be clinically symptomatic. Literature reports indicate that their prevalence varies across populations. Knowledge of atavistic and vestigial anatomical structures can inform diagnoses, prevent misrecognition of variation for pathology, and guide clinical interventions.

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Reproduced with permission from Singh et al. (2008)

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TFM: had the idea for the article. All authors performed the literature search, critical analysis of the literature, and drafted and critically revised the work.

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Correspondence to Tarik F. Massoud.

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Dhawan, S.S., Yedavalli, V. & Massoud, T.F. Atavistic and vestigial anatomical structures in the head, neck, and spine: an overview. Anat Sci Int 98, 370–390 (2023).

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