Testing the function of dromaeosaurid (Dinosauria, Theropoda) 'sickle claws' through musculoskeletal modelling and optimization

Bishop, P J (2019) Testing the function of dromaeosaurid (Dinosauria, Theropoda) 'sickle claws' through musculoskeletal modelling and optimization. PeerJ. e7577.

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Abstract

Dromaeosaurids were a clade of bird-like, carnivorous dinosaurs that are well known for their characteristic morphology of pedal digit II, which bore an enlarged, sickle-shaped claw and permitted an extreme range of flexion–extension. Proposed functions for the claw often revolve around predation, but the exact manner of use varies widely. Musculoskeletal modelling provides an avenue to quantitatively investigate the biomechanics of this enigmatic system, and thereby test different behavioural hypotheses. Here, a musculoskeletal model of the hindlimb and pes of Deinonychus was developed, and mathematical optimization was used to assess the factors that maximize production of force at the claw tip. Optimization revealed that more crouched hindlimb postures (i.e., more flexed knees and ankles) and larger flexor muscle volumes consistently increased claw forces, although the optimal degree of digit flexion or extension depended on assumptions of muscle activity and fibre operating range. Interestingly, the magnitude of force capable of being produced at the claw tip was relatively small, arguing against regular transmission of a large proportion of body weight into a substrate principally via the claw tip. Such transmission would therefore likely have needed to occur via more proximal parts of the foot. Collectively, the results best support a grasping function for digit II (e.g., restraint of prey smaller than the dromaeosaurid’s own body size), although other behaviours involving flexed hindlimbs cannot be excluded.