Skeletal growth and function in the California gull (Larus californicus)


*Address for correspondence


Although the bones of rapidly growing animals are composed of weak tissue, they often must function in locomotor activity. We address the conflict between development and skeletal function by analysing the ontogeny of skeletal strength in the California gull, Larus californicus. Changes in shape and mechanical properties of the femur, tibia, tarsometatarsus, humerus, ulna and carpometacarpus were analysed in a complete post-hatching growth series. During post-hatching growth, strength and stiffness of the skeletal tissue increases six- to ten-fold. At hatching, long bones of the wing are relatively weak and they remain so throughout the major portion of the growth period. However, in the hind limb, relatively thick bones in juveniles compensate for the weak tissue such that the force required to break the bones remains constant relative to body mass. This difference between hind limb and wing parallels the development of locomotor function; young gulls begin to walk within a day or two of hatching, but they do not fly until they are fully grown. Thus, in the bones of the hind limb, the conflict between rapid growth and skeletal function is solved by negative allometry of bone thickness.

After young gulls reach adult size, the breaking strength of the wing bones increases three- to four-fold, the mass of the pectoralis muscle triples and the surface area of the wing doubles. The one aspect of wing development that is not delayed until shortly before fledging is linear growth of the bones. Bones of the wing increase in length at a rapid and relatively constant rate from the time of hatching to the attainment of adult size. Relatively early initiation of linear growth of the wing bones suggests that the rate at which bones grow in length may be the rate limiting factor in wing development.