Comparative cranial biomechanics in two lizard species: impact of variation in cranial design

Hugo Dutel, Flora Gröning, Alana Sharp, Peter J. Watson, Anthony Herrel, Callum F. Ross, Marc E H Jones, Susan E. Evans, Michael J Fagan

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13 Citations (Scopus)
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Cranial morphology in lepidosaurs is highly disparate and characterized by the frequent loss or reduction of bony elements. In varanids and geckos, the loss of the postorbital bar is associated with changes in skull shape, but the mechanical principles underlying this variation remain poorly understood. Here, we seek to determine how the overall cranial architecture and the presence of the postorbital bar relate to the loading and deformation of the cranial bones during biting in lepidosaurs. Using computer-based simulation techniques, we compare cranial biomechanics in the varanid Varanus niloticus and the teiid Salvator merianae, two large, active foragers. The overall strain magnitudes and distribution across the cranium is similar in both species, despite lower strain gradients in Varanus niloticus. In Salvator merianae, the postorbital bar is important for the resistance of the cranium to feeding loads. The postorbital ligament, which partially replaces the postorbital bar in varanids, does not affect bone strain. Our results suggest that the reduction of the postorbital bar impaired neither biting performance nor the structural resistance of the cranium to feeding loads in Varanus niloticus. Differences in bone strain between the two species might reflect demands imposed by feeding and non-feeding functions on cranial shape. Beyond variation in cranial bone strain related to species-specific morphological differences, our results reveal that similar mechanical behaviour is shared by lizards with distinct cranial shapes. Contrary to mammals, the morphology of the circumorbital region, calvaria and palate appears to be important for withstanding high feeding loads in these lizards.
Original languageEnglish
Article numberjeb.234831
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue numberPt 5
Early online date27 Jan 2021
Publication statusPublished - 11 Mar 2021

Bibliographical note

We thank Sue Taft (University of Hull, UK) for her assistance in scanning the specimens and measuring the bone material properties, and the Viper High Performance Computing facility of the University of Hull and its support team for their help and assistance in running the FEAs. Alex Blanke (University of Bonn, Germany) and Manuel Pinheiro (Ghent University, Belgium) are thanked for the valuable discussions during this project.
This study was funded by Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) grants to S.E.E. (BB/H011854/1; BB/M010287/1), M.J.F. (BB/H011668/1;736 BB/M008525/1) and F.G. (BB/M008061/1). M.E.H.J. was supported by the Australian Research Council (DE130101567).


  • Lepidosauria
  • squamata
  • skull
  • feeding
  • finite element analysis
  • multibody dynamics analysis


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