A systematic comparative description of extant turtle humeri, with comments on humerus disparity and evolution based on fossil comparisons

Guilherme Hermanson, Fernando A.M. Arnal, Tomasz Szczygielski, Serjoscha W. Evers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The humerus is central for locomotion in turtles as quadrupedal animals. Osteological variation across testudine clades remains poorly documented. Here, we systematically describe the humerus anatomy for all major extant turtle clades based on 38 species representing the phylogenetic and ecological diversity of crown turtles. Three Late Triassic species of shelled stem turtles (Testudindata) are included to establish the plesiomorphic humerus morphology. Our work is based on 3D models, establishing a publicly available digital database. Previously defined terms for anatomical sides of the humerus (e.g., dorsal, ventral) are often not aligned with the respective body sides in turtles and other quadrupedal animals with sprawling gait. We propose alternative anatomical directional terms to simplify communication: radial and ulnar (the sides articulating with the radius/ulna), capitular (the side bearing the humeral head), and intertubercular (opposite to capitular surface). Turtle humeri show low morphological variation with exceptions concentrated in locomotory specialists. We propose 15 discrete characters to summarize osteological variation for future phylogenetic studies. Disparity analyses comparing non-shelled and shelled turtles indicate that the presence of the shell constrains humerus variation. Flippered aquatic turtles are released from this constraint and significantly increase overall disparity. Ontogenetic changes of turtle humeri are related to increased ossification and pronunciation of the proximal processes, the distal articulation areas, and the closure of the ectepicondylar groove to a foramen. Some turtle species retain juvenile features into adulthood and provide evidence for paedomorphic evolution. We review major changes of turtle humerus morphology throughout the evolution of its stem group.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-69
Number of pages69
JournalThe Anatomical Record
Early online date8 May 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 8 May 2024


  • disparity
  • ecomorphology
  • humerus
  • morphological constraint
  • turtle evolution

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biotechnology
  • Anatomy
  • Histology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

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