The cetacean humerus is a short, robust bone without an open medullary cavity. It lies in the base of the resilient, streamlined pectoral limb (flipper) between the only free articulation (the glenohumeral) and approximately the body contour. The humerus is acted upon by muscles of the shoulder complex and receives loadings from the flattened distal portion of the limb as this hydroplane acts against body inertia and water resistance in control of body attitude.

This study is an analysis of development and structure of the humerus in terms of the unique functional role of the flipper of finback, beluga and pilot whales. Gross external and internal architecture are depictued by photographs and by whole bone and frontal section radiographs. Structural density (bone/unit volume of humerus, with mineral content known to be constant) is analyzed indirectly by photodensitometry of standardized radiographs of sawed sections. Results are shown in graphic reconstructions of sections and of the whole bone. By comparison of radiodensity with the actual weight/volume of excised samples, sections are also reconstructed in terms of absolute density distribution.

It is found that the spongy cetacean humerus, from its origin, is without central resorption and that its definitive structure is produced primarily by differential concentration of bone along endoectad gradients of porosity. Thus, the greatest concentration of bone is on medial and lateral sides while bone only half as dense fills the anterior and posterior sides and underlies the most dense regions. The core region is extremely porous. Within the biological context, this is a most reasonable approximation of the engineered box-beam as employed in some aircraft wings. Whole bone and frontal section radiographs show that, within this overall density pattern, the distribution of bone trabeculae resembles the classic illustrations of trajectories in the loaded beam.

The ontogenetic and phylogenetic factors with possible bearing on this type of bone development and structure are discussed.