Virtual functional morphology: novel approaches to the study of craniofacial form and function

P. O'Higgins, L. C. Fitton, R. Phillips, J. F. Shi, J. Liu, F. Gröning, S. N. Cobb, M. J. Fagan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


Recent developments in simulating musculoskeletal functioning in the craniofacial complex using multibody dynamic analysis and finite elements analysis enable comprehensive virtual investigations into musculoskeletal form and function. Because the growth of the craniofacial skeleton is strongly influenced by mechanical functioning, these methods have potential in investigating the normal and abnormal development of the skull: loading history during development can be predicted and bony adaptations to these loads simulated. Thus these methods can be used to predict the impact of altered loading or modifications of skull form early in ontogeny on the subsequent development of structures. Combining functional models with geometric morphometric methods (GMM), which are principally concerned with the study of variations of form, offers the opportunity to examine variations in form during development and the covariations between form and factors such as functional performance. Such a combination of functional models and GMM can potentially be applied in many useful ways, for example: to build and modify functional models, to assess the outcomes of remodelling studies by comparing the results with morphological changes during ontogeny, and to compare the outcomes of finite element analyses within a multivariate framework. Studies using these tools can not only investigate the development of the skull but also the mechanical processes and thus to some degree, behaviours underlying the development of variation among extant and fossil skeletal elements. By bringing together these tools from quite different comparative traditions, a novel and potentially powerful framework for simulation and statistical biomechanical analyses of form and function emerges. This paper reviews these recent developments in the context of the evolutionary and functional influences on skull development.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)521-535
Number of pages15
JournalEvolutionary Biology
Issue number4
Early online date30 Mar 2012
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2012


  • geometric morphometrics
  • biomechanics
  • finite element analysis
  • multibody dynamics analysis


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