Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Short Legs, Big Benefit

Just weeks ago, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology published an article which suggests that Neanderthals benefitted from significantly shorter legs than modern humans. These short legs were a necessary adaptation to the harsh, wintry climates of the Pleistocene.

Although their shorter legs slowed their movement, according to Johns Hopkins researcher and graduate student Ryan Higgins, Neanderthals were able to move quite efficiently over rocky terrain

"Studies looking at limb length have always concluded that a shorter limb, including in Neanderthals, leads to less efficiency of movement, because they had to take more steps to go a given distance. But the other studies only looked at flat land," said lead researcher Ryan Higgins, a graduate student in the Johns Hopkins Center of Functional Anatomy and Evolution. "Our study suggests that the Neanderthals' steps were not less efficient than modern humans in the sloped, mountainous environment where they lived."
Mirroring a tendency for animals from cold climates to be smaller and more compact, Neanderthals likely evolved to have these short legs so that they lost less body heat and maintained a lower center of gravity in mountainous areas of Europe and Western Asia. Their legs also helped them when moving up hills and traveling large distances. Correspondingly, humans probably adapted to warmer climates and less distance-traveling with their longer, leaner legs. 

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