The tarsometatarsus of the ostrich struthio camelus: Anatomy, bone densities, and structural mechanics

Meagan M. Gilbert, Eric Snively, John Cotton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Background The ostrich Struthio camelus reaches the highest speeds of any extant biped, and has been an extraordinary subject for studies of soft-tissue anatomy and dynamics of locomotion. An elongate tarsometatarsus in adult ostriches contributes to their speed. The internal osteology of the tarsometatarsus, and its mechanical response to forces of running, are potentially revealing about ostrich foot function. Methods/Principal Findings Computed tomography (CT) reveals anatomy and bone densities in tarsometatarsi of an adult and a young juvenile ostrich. A finite element (FE) model for the adult was constructed with properties of compact and cancellous bone where these respective tissues predominate in the original specimen. The model was subjected to a quasi-static analysis under the midstance ground reaction and muscular forces of a fast run. Anatomy-Metatarsals are divided proximally and distally and unify around a single internal cavity in most adult tarsometatarsus shafts, but the juvenile retains an internal three-part division of metatarsals throughout the element. The juvenile has a sparsely ossified hypotarsus for insertion of the m. fibularis longus, as part of a proximally separate third metatarsal. Bone is denser in all regions of the adult tarsometatarsus, with cancellous bone concentrated at proximal and distal articulations, and highly dense compact bone throughout the shaft. Biomechanics-FE simulations show stress and strain are much greater at midshaft than at force applications, suggesting that shaft bending is the most important stressor of the tarsometatarsus. Contraction of digital flexors, inducing a posterior force at the TMT distal condyles, likely reduces buildup of tensile stresses in the bone by inducing compression at these locations, and counteracts bending loads. Safety factors are high for von Mises stress, consistent with faster running speeds known for ostriches. Conclusions/Significance High safety factors suggest that bone densities and anatomy of the ostrich tarsometatarsus confer strength for selectively critical activities, such as fleeing and kicking predators. Anatomical results and FE modeling of the ostrich tarsometatarsus are a useful baseline for testing the structure's capabilities and constraints for locomotion, through ontogeny and the full step cycle.With this foundation, future analyses can incorporate behaviorally realistic strain rates and distal joint forces, experimental validation, and proximal elements of the ostrich hind limb.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0149708
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2016
Externally publishedYes

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