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The gibbon's Achilles tendon revisited : consequences for the evolution of the great apes?

  • Aerts, Peter
  • D'Août, Kristiaan
  • Thorpe, Susannah
  • Berillon, Gilles
  • Vereecke, Evie
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2018
Ghent University Institutional Archive
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The well-developed Achilles tendon in humans is generally interpreted as an adaptation for mechanical energy storage and reuse during cyclic locomotion. All other extant great apes have a short tendon and long-fibred triceps surae, which is thought to be beneficial for locomotion in a complex arboreal habitat as this morphology enables a large range of motion. Surprisingly, highly arboreal gibbons show a more human-like triceps surae with a long Achilles tendon. Evidence for a spring-like function similar to humans is not conclusive. We revisit and integrate our anatomical and biomechanical data to calculate the energy that can be recovered from the recoiling Achilles tendon during ankle plantar flexion in bipedal gibbons. Only 7.5% of the required external positive work in a stride can come from tendon recoil, yet it is delivered at an instant when the whole-body energy level drops. Consequently, an additional similar amount of mechanical energy must simultaneously dissipate elsewhere in the system. Altogether, this challenges the concept of an energy-saving function in the gibbon's Achilles tendon. Cercopithecids, sister group of the apes, also have a human-like triceps surae. Therefore, a well-developed Achilles tendon, present in the last common 'Cercopithecoidea-Hominoidea' ancestor, seems plausible. If so, the gibbon's anatomy represents an evolutionary relict (no harm-no benefit), and the large Achilles tendon is not the premised key adaptation in humans (although the spring-like function may have further improved during evolution). Moreover, the triceps surae anatomy of extant non-human great apes must be a convergence, related to muscle control and range of motion. This perspective accords with the suggestions put forward in the literature that the last common hominoid ancestor was not necessarily great ape-like, but might have been more similar to the small-bodied catarrhines.

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