For hundreds of years, the back rooms of museums have been the lairs of craniologists, anthropologists, and assorted vertebrate paleontologists, each hunched over their treasured bones with calipers in hand. Every conceivable projection, every tantalizing crest, every nook and cranny has been the object of affection for some tenacious measuring device. Since the heady days of Samuel George Morton (1839), Thomas Henry Huxley (1863), Paul Broca (18711877) and Paul Topinard (1876), the linear, angular, and volumetric measures derived from these osteometric faults and protuberances have been the hieroglyphics of vertebrate form. Unfortunately, no craniometric Rosetta stone exits; the myriad of measures and indexes lovingly passed down through generations have left us a legacy of numbers but often limited insight into how bony form came to be.

Before the sharpened tips of calipers are hurled in my direction, I should explain the above. First, I have spent a goodly amount of my own career in those dusty back rooms in museums and collections from Pretoria to Paris measuring my treasures (in my case, the pinnacle of all objects—no bias here—human ancestors). I have both used revered classical linear measures and created those of my own. I believe that the studies derived from these labors, and those of many similarly focused colleagues, have indeed offered valued insights into the morphology of these treasured bits and pieces. While we have offered much, we have also left much more unanswered. Notably, many of the biomechanical secrets underlying the core of how vertebrate bony form came to be have lain outside of our collective reach.

This special issue of The Anatomical Record, Part A, on “Finite Element Analysis in Vertebrate Biomechanics” provides a valuable overview of a powerful modeling approach that can offer extraordinary insight into the morphology, biomechanics, and evolution of vertebrate bony form. The issue has been guest-edited by Callum Ross, a functional and evolutionary anatomist and paleoanthropologist whose own breadth of research experience with diverse approaches to assessing vertebrate structure has given him a unique perch from which to follow the growth in use and value of this most special numerical tool. Many of the papers in this issue were derived from a recent symposium (supported in part by The Anatomical Record) on “Finite Element Analysis of Vertebrate Skulls” organized by Ross and held at the International Congress of Vertebrate Morphology in Boca Raton, Florida, in July 2004.

Ross has brought to this issue a robust collection of state-of-the-art papers that review the breadth of the use of finite element analysis (FEA) from its development as an engineering tool for studying the response of objects to an applied load to its current incorporation by vertebrate evolutionary morphologists who seek to understand the underlying functional significance of morphological variation in living and fossil groups. Three general overlapping areas are the foci: the general use of FEA in biomechanical analyses of vertebrate skeletal morphology, the application of FEA to interpreting morphology in fossils, and the use of in vivo bone strain and muscle electromyographic data to load and validate finite element models (FEMs). Strengths and pitfalls of FEA and its applications are provided throughout, making this collection a most valuable manual for those employing, or contemplating employing, the technique and modeling methods. The diversity of extant and fossil taxa studied or employed as models is considerable, ranging from mouse tibia to alligator crania, and from the facial skeleton of bats to a horse's hoof to a macaques's mandible. The applications on fossil material—from assessments of carnivorous dinosaurs to the earliest of human ancestors—provide a window into the growing power of FEA in deciphering the underlying functional morphology of our vertebrate past.

Recently, I had the occasion to recommend a book to one of my children. This occurred after I inquired as to what she was reading in her classes and, after scanning a list of books that I never heard of (all, I am sure, politically correct and socially uplifting), I asked if she would like to read one of my favorites. Ignoring her pained look, I presented her with my beloved and tattered copy of Paul de Kruif's Microbe Hunters (1965), the first chapter of which details the eye-opening wonders of Antony van Leeuwenhoek and his microscopes. To my surprise, my daughter must have actually read some of the book, as she remarked a few days later how extraordinary it would be to have “microscopes for eyes” and to be able to focus clearly on things no one else had been able to see. In many ways, as the microscope did for Leeuwenhoek, the power afforded by finite element analysis allows our osteometric “eyes” to focus further, and see deeper within, than our methods and abilities previously allowed. This special issue of The Anatomical Record will continue to sharpen our microscope's lens on how vertebrate form came to be.


  1. Top of page
  • Broca P. 1871–1877. Memoires d'anthropologie, 3 vols. Paris: C. Reinwald.
  • de Kruif P. 1965. Microbe hunters. New York: Washington Square Press.
  • Huxley TH. 1863. Evidence as to man's place in nature. London: Williams and Norgate.
  • Morton SG. 1839. Crania Americana, or a comparative view of the skulls of various aboriginal nations of North and South America. Philadelphia: J. Penington.
  • Topinard P. 1876. L'anthropologie. Paris: C. Reinwald.