Subscapularis function in gibbons and chimpanzees: Implications for interpretation of humeral head torsion in hominoids



Chimpanzees and gibbons, along with other hominoids, share a number of features in the morphology of their shoulders that have generally been associated with use of the upper limb in overhead postural and locomotor activities. These include the position and shape of the scapula, as well as the morphology of the proximal end of the humerus. Results of an electromyographic (EMG) analysis of shoulder muscle activity patterns indicate that these two species of hominoids also share broad similarities in shoulder muscle function during locomotion and voluntary movements. Differences do exist, however, in the activity patterns of subscapularis, a medial rotator of the arm. These differences mainly involve a greater participation by the gibbon subscapularis in free arm movements. This greater participation is characterized by earlier onset of muscle activity, higher amplitude of recruitment, and involvement of more of the total mass of the muscle. These differences in muscle recruitment suggest that the shoulder of gibbons differs from that of chimpanzees in some manner that necessitates the greater contribution of a medial rotator to the production of motion in the upper limb. I suggest that the low degree of humeral head torsion in gibbons, compared to that of other hominoids, gives their elbow a “lateral set” that must be overcome by the action of subscapularis during free arm movements. I propose that this modest degree of humeral head torsion in gibbons reflects a compromise between necessary changes caused by the repositioning of the scapula onto the dorsum of the thorax and the demands for extreme positioning of the elbow during brachiation. In addition, I suggest that the greater amount of torsion in the chimpanzee humerus is an accommodation to quadrupedal habits, and finally, that the high degree of torsion in human humeri is an independently acquired trait related to use of the upper limb as a manipulatory organ.