Substrate alters forelimb to hindlimb peak force ratios in primates.
It is often claimed that the walking gaits of primates are unusual because, unlike most other mammals, primates appear to have higher vertical peak ground reaction forces on their hindlimbs than on their forelimbs. Many researchers have argued that this pattern of ground reaction force distribution is part of a general adaptation to arboreal locomotion. This argument is frequently used to support models of primate locomotor evolution. Unfortunately, little is known about the force distribution patterns of primates walking on arboreal supports, nor do we completely understand the mechanisms that regulate weight distribution in primates. We collected vertical peak force data for seven species of primates walking quadrupedally on instrumented terrestrial and arboreal supports. Our results show that, when walking on arboreal vs. terrestrial substrates, primates generally have lower vertical peak forces on both limbs but the difference is most extreme for the forelimb. We found that force reduction occurs primarily by decreasing forelimb and, to a lesser extent, hindlimb stiffness. As a result, on arboreal supports, primates experience significantly greater functional differentiation of the forelimb and hindlimb than on the ground. These data support long-standing theories that arboreal locomotion was a critical factor in the differentiation of the forelimbs and hindlimbs in primates. This change in functional role of the forelimb may have played a critical role in the origin of primates and facilitated the evolution of more specialized locomotor behaviors.
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