Masticatory Loading, Function, and Plasticity: A Microanatomical Analysis of Mammalian Circumorbital Soft-Tissue Structures



In contrast to experimental evidence regarding the postorbital bar, postorbital septum, and browridge, there is exceedingly little evidence regarding the load-bearing nature of soft-tissue structures of the mammalian circumorbital region. This hinders our understanding of pronounced transformations during primate origins, in which euprimates evolved a postorbital bar from an ancestor with the primitive mammalian condition where only soft tissues spanned the lateral orbital margin between frontal bone and zygomatic arch. To address this significant gap, we investigated the postorbital microanatomy of rabbits subjected to long-term variation in diet-induced masticatory stresses. Rabbits exhibit a masticatory complex and feeding behaviors similar to primates, yet retain a more primitive mammalian circumorbital region. Three cohorts were obtained as weanlings and raised on different diets until adult. Following euthanasia, postorbital soft tissues were dissected away, fixed, and decalcified. These soft tissues were divided into inferior, intermediate, and superior units and then dehydrated, embedded, and sectioned. H&E staining was used to characterize overall architecture. Collagen orientation and complexity were evaluated via picrosirius-red staining. Safranin-O identified proteoglycan content with additional immunostaining performed to assess Type-II collagen expression. Surprisingly, the ligament along the lateral orbital wall was composed of elastic fibrocartilage. A more degraded organization of collagen fibers in this postorbital fibrocartilage is correlated with increased masticatory forces due to a more fracture-resistant diet. Furthermore, the lack of marked changes in the extracellular composition of the lateral orbital wall related to tissue viscoelasticity suggests it is unlikely that long-term exposure to elevated masticatory stresses underlies the development of a bony postorbital bar. Anat Rec, 293:642–650, 2010. © 2010 Wiley-Liss, Inc.