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

Bibliographical note

Since submission of this manuscript Professor Roger Phillips has passed away. We would like to express our deep sense of loss and our wholehearted appreciation of a valued colleague
and friend. His contributions to software development made this paper possible and have opened up novel and engaging avenues of research for us all. We are grateful to Philipp Gunz and Philipp Mitteroecker for inviting Paul O’Higgins to take part in the 21st Altenberg Workshop in Theoretical Biology ‘The role of development in human evolution’. This paper is based on the presentation given at that symposium. The Konrad Lorenz Institute management and staff were most generous and attentive in supporting a lively and exciting symposium. We are grateful to colleagues who, through discussion and critique, have contributed to the development of the methods and ideas we present; R McNeill Alexander, Fred Bookstein, John Currey, Neil Curtis, Kornelius Kupczik, Carlo Meloro, Charles Oxnard, Lee Page, Callum Ross, Dennis Slice, David Strait, Jack Wharton and Ulrich Witzel. The work was supported by research grants from The Leverhulme Trust (F/00224), BBSRC (BB/E013805; BB/E009204), and by the Marie Curie Initiatives EVAN (MRTN CT2005-019564) and PALAEO (MEST-CT-2005-020601).


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


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