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The semicircular canal system and locomotion: The case of extinct lemuroids and lorisoids


  • Alan Walker,

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    • Alan Walker is Evan Pugh Professor of Anthropology and Biology at Penn State University. His 1967 PhD thesis concerned the locomation of the extinct Madagascan lemurs, a subject to which he returns here.

  • Timothy M. Ryan,

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    • Timothy M. Ryan is a Research Associate in the Department of Anthropology and the Center for Quantitative Imaging at Penn State University. He is interested in primate locomotor evolution and the functional morphology of the postcranial skeleton.

  • Mary T. Silcox,

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    • Mary T. Silcox is an Associate Professor at the University of Winnipeg. Her research focuses on the earliest phases of primate evolution. She is interested in elucidating the evolutionary and adaptive context of primate origins, in particular the stem primates referred to as “plesiadapiforms.”

  • Elwyn L. Simons,

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    • Elwyn L. Simons is James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of Biological Anthropology and Anatomy at Duke University. He is interested in primate evolution and has worked in the field in Egypt, India, Iran, Madagascar, Nepal, and Wyoming.

  • Fred Spoor

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    • Fred Spoor is Professor of Evolutionary Anatomy at University College London, United Kingdom, and affiliated with the Koobi Fora Research Project, Kenya.


Paleontologists reconstruct the locomotor and postural behavior of extinct species by analogy with living forms and biomechanical analyses. In rare cases, behavioral evidence such as footprints can be used to confirm fossil-based reconstructions for predominantly terrestrial orders of mammals. For instance, the chalicothere prints from Laetoli show that these perissodactyls supported their body weight on the metacarpals, as previously reconstructed.1 Unfortunately, primates are mostly arboreal and rarely leave footprints. The cercopithecid and hominin prints at Laetoli are a rare exception. We have recently shown that the semicircular canal system can be used to test and augment locomotor reconstructions based on postcranial material or to provide first estimations of locomotor behavior for taxa not known from the postcranium. Using a sample of modern primates, we have been able to demonstrate that the radii of curvature of the semicircular canals are significantly correlated with both body mass and agility of locomotion.2 This paper reviews those results and examines the relationship between semicircular canal morphology and other evidence in efforts to reconstruct locomotor behavior in subfossil lemurs from the Holocene of Madagascar and fossil lorisoids from the Miocene of Africa.