For greater than a century anthropologists, zoologists and palaeontologists have used a small however vital a part of the anatomy to reconstruct the top posture of each extinct and present species. That is vital as a result of head posture permits scientists to hypothesise about different issues comparable to food regimen and the way species moved.
The physique half in query is the aircraft of the lateral semicircular canal of the interior ear. It is a small canal within the cranium that belongs to the organ of steadiness. All vertebrates from fish to dinosaurs have it. For the reason that early 1900s, researchers have assumed that the aircraft of this canal was held parallel to the Earth’s horizontal aircraft.
So, they reasoned, inserting a fossil cranium with its lateral semicircular interior ear canal parallel to the Earth’s horizontal aircraft would reveal how extinct species held their heads. Interior ears protect very properly within the fossil report, which made this system simple to make use of on all kinds of extinct animals.
However the assumption that the lateral semicircular canal is held horizontal was by no means really examined on residing animals. Three years in the past, a global staff led by researchers from the College of the Witwatersrand in South Africa determined to place the speculation to the check. The ensuing examine, simply revealed within the journal Scientific Reviews, disproves the 100-year-old concept.
We discovered that the lateral semicircular canal just isn’t usually held horizontally. Which means that reconstructing head posture just isn’t merely a matter of aligning the lateral canal with the horizontal aircraft, and that head posture has a way more difficult evolutionary story. This has main implications for our understanding of the evolution of life: head posture has been used as a gateway to, for instance, bipedalism in hominins, food regimen in herbivores (browsers are believed to carry their head increased up than grazers do), and even the origin of warm-bloodedness in dinosaurs.
A gargantuan process
The work that resulted on this examine began three years in the past after I started placing collectively a complete dataset that sought to reply a deceptively easy query: “Is the lateral semicircular canal of the interior ear a dependable proxy to deduce head posture?”
In concept, discovering solutions could be simple. I might merely have to watch dwell animals and evaluate the posture of their head as reconstructed utilizing the lateral semicircular canal to their precise head posture to see if the 2 matched.
However in follow, it was no simple process. To entry the lateral canal, my collaborators and I needed to put over 300 mammalian skulls from around the globe into X-ray medical scanners. The interior ear then needed to be extracted digitally from the X-ray photos. In parallel, we needed to photographically doc the precise head posture of the identical species utilizing a digital camera outfitted with a bubble stage to ensured that each one photos could be taken horizontally. To do that, I travelled to zoos on three totally different continents to create the most important photographic dataset of head posture in mammals: it comprises greater than 10 000 photos of animals, in profile, starting from giraffes to African and Indian rhinos, horses, zebras, pigs, an enormous number of antelopes and hippos.
Due to this dataset, we might evaluate the precise and reconstructed head posture in additional than 100 species of mammals.
Inspecting the info
Subsequent, I took the X-ray photos to the computer systems at Wits College, extracted the interior ear from the cranium digitally and reconstructed it in 3D utilizing modeling software program.
Then I measured the angle between the cranium and the lateral semicircular canal (many instances to cowl measurement errors). I did this for each single specimen that was scanned – a course of that took months. In parallel, I took the images of the residing animals and measured the angle between the top and the horizontal aircraft.
Lastly, I in contrast the 2 measurements. If the canal was held parallel to the Earth’s horizontal aircraft, the angles I measured on the cranium and the residing animals could be the identical, on common.
However they weren’t. Some species, such because the hippos, show an as much as 39° distinction between the 2 measurements. We additionally discovered that ecology (food regimen and habitat) have little to do with head posture. The truth is, head posture seems to be merely pushed by genetics: carefully associated species on the tree of life have comparable head postures. All these conclusions had been backed with statistical exams to make sure that these had been primarily based on precise outcomes, and never on incorrect measurements.
Extra to do
Extra work stays. Our examine must be expanded to extra mammalian species, in addition to to reptiles and birds, earlier than we are able to generalise our conclusions. However what we have now discovered up to now, and outlined within the Scientific Reviews article, makes it clear that the strategy researchers have used for the previous century isn’t correct.
We’re at present constructing a undertaking to develop our observations to primates and birds, as it’s possible that making use of our strategies to those teams might have vital outcomes about bipedalism. A bipedal species is predicted to carry its head decrease than a quadrupedal one, and this has been used to hypothesise shifts from a quadrupedal to a standing up stance in dinosaurs and people. We’ll see if this concept stands up when our strategy is utilized.