Integrating morphology and in vivo skeletal mobility with digital models to infer function in brittle star arms

Clark, E G and Hutchinson, J R and Darroch, S A F and Mongiardino Koch, N and Bady, T R and Smith, S A and Briggs, D E G (2018) Integrating morphology and in vivo skeletal mobility with digital models to infer function in brittle star arms. JOURNAL OF ANATOMY, 233 (6). pp. 696-714.

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Abstract

Brittle stars (Phylum Echinodermata, Class Ophiuroidea) have evolved rapid locomotion employing muscle and skeletal elements within their (usually) five arms to apply forces in a manner analogous to that of vertebrates. Inferring the inner workings of the arm has been difficult as the skeleton is internal and many of the ossicles are sub‐millimeter in size. Advances in 3D visualization and technology have made the study of movement in ophiuroids possible. We developed six virtual 3D skeletal models to demonstrate the potential range of motion of the main arm ossicles, known as vertebrae, and six virtual 3D skeletal models of non‐vertebral ossicles. These models revealed the joint center and relative position of the arm ossicles during near‐maximal range of motion. The models also provide a platform for the comparative evaluation of functional capabilities between disparate ophiuroid arm morphologies. We made observations on specimens of Ophioderma brevispina and Ophiothrix angulata. As these two taxa exemplify two major morphological categories of ophiuroid vertebrae, they provide a basis for an initial assessment of the functional consequences of these disparate vertebral morphologies. These models suggest potential differences in the structure of the intervertebral articulations in these two species, implying disparities in arm flexion mechanics. We also evaluated the differences in the range of motion between segments in the proximal and distal halves of the arm length in a specimen of O. brevispina, and found that the morphology of vertebrae in the distal portion of the arm allows for higher mobility than in the proximal portion. Our models of non‐vertebral ossicles show that they rotate further in the direction of movement than the vertebrae themselves in order to accommodate arm flexion. These findings raise doubts over previous hypotheses regarding the functional consequences of ophiuroid arm disparity. Our study demonstrates the value of integrating experimental data and visualization of articulated structures when making functional interpretations instead of relying on observations of vertebral or segmental morphology alone. This methodological framework can be applied to other ophiuroid taxa to enable comparative functional analyses. It will also facilitate biomechanical analyses of other invertebrate groups to illuminate how appendage or locomotor function evolved.

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