Abstract

Spinal ossified tendons are a defining character for Ornithischia, one of the two major clades of dinosaurs. The function of these bony rods has remained a mystery since their first detailed description in 1886. Qualitative approaches to understand ossified tendon function have resulted in different ecological and behavioral interpretations for ornithopod dinosaurs. To evaluate ossified tendon function, this study constructed finite element models of the vertebral column for two ornithopod taxa: Tenontosaurus, which shows the plesiomorphic condition of longitudinally arrayed tendons along the spinous processes, and Brachylophosaurus, which exhibits a lattice of tendons along the spinous processes. Both models predict that ossified tendons stiffened the vertebral column, especially the tail, but the derived lattice of ossified tendons in iguanodontoidean dinosaurs, like Brachylophosaurus, increased spinal stiffness more than the plesiomorphic condition. Caudofemoral muscles that retracted the hindlimb during locomotion attached the femur to the tail in ornithopods. Increased tail stiffness caused by intratendinous ossification may have influenced locomotion by rigidly anchoring M. caudofemoralis longus to the tail, thereby allowing a more forceful retraction of the hindlimb by reducing ventral flexion of the tail during muscle contraction. Ossified tendons may also have been important for storing elastic energy throughout the gait cycle. Moreover, the lattice of ossified tendons stiffened the trunk and tail nearly equally in Brachylophosaurus, indicating the evolution of a postural function by passively supporting the epaxial musculature in maintaining a horizontal vertebral column.

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