Guest post from Robin A. Smith, Duke Lemur Center

Some tree-dwelling animals move through the forest with the help of an unlikely tool — a stiff back. A more rigid spine seems to help  stabilize their trunks as they reach across gaps in the canopy, according to Duke researchers.

Slender Loris

The slender loris (Loris tardigradus) is able to exploit tender tips of tree branches by moving slowly and keeping a stiff back rather than leaping from branch to branch. (Credit: David Haring, Duke Lemur Center)

The findings appear in the March 2014 issue of the Journal of Morphology.

Animals that live in the treetops need to be good at crossing gaps between trees in order to move and forage in the canopy without constantly climbing up and down. Some animals leap, hop or bound from branch to branch, flying through the forest in a feat of aerial acrobatics. But others move more slowly and deliberately, reaching out and grabbing onto the tips of the nearest tree to form a bridge and pulling themselves across.

The latter strategy helps some animals venture onto slender branch tips where young leaves and fruits are often found –- perches that are too thin and delicate to leap off without buckling, said lead author Michael Granatosky, a grad student in Evolutionary Anthropology.

To investigate the anatomical traits that help some animals bridge rather than bound between branches, Granatosky and colleagues pored over skeletons in museums and took measurements of the spines and ribs of 22 species — including lemurs, treeshrews, anteaters, opossums and squirrels. Some of the species move slowly and cautiously through the treetops, while others leap and jump.

The researchers also analyzed the bridging behavior of two pairs of closely-related species — the bare-tailed woolly opossum versus the gray short-tailed opossum, and the fat-tailed dwarf lemur versus the slender loris — while the animals negotiated custom-made jungle gyms.

The opossum study was part of a previous experiment by co-authors Daniel Schmitt and Pierre Lemelin at Duke, and the primate study was conducted at the Duke Lemur Center.

The researchers found that the species that bridged more often, or for longer periods of time, had narrower spaces between adjacent ribs and vertebrae.

Their more tightly-woven spines limit their ability to bend side-to-side, but enable them to hold their body out straight to span openings in the canopy without relying on brute muscle strength alone, Granatosky said.

The study was funded by the Force and Motion Foundation and by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to Michael Granatosky.

CITATION: “Functional and evolutionary aspects of axial stability in Euarchontans and other mammals,” Granatosky, M., et al. Journal of Morphology, March 2014. DOI: 10.1002/jmor.20216. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jmor.20216/abstract