Evolutionary Biology Evolutionary Biomechanics
Travis Hagey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 17 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199941728-0117


Life has diversified on Earth in many stunning ways. Understanding how this diversity arose and has been maintained is a common interest for many evolutionary biologists. One approach to studying morphological evolution is the inherently interdisciplinary field of evolutionary biomechanics, investigating how organisms physically operate, combining biology, engineering, and evolution to consider morphology in an engineering and evolutionary context. Biomechanical research often focuses on the force, torque, stress, thrust, drag, or pressure generated by or within organisms (i.e., how birds fly or how trees pump fluids against gravity). Evolutionary biomechanics, or if considering multiple species, comparative biomechanics, consider biomechanical concepts in an evolutionary context, asking how morphological and performance-related traits and abilities may have evolved. Evolutionary biomechanics combines aspects of anatomy, engineering, evolution, and even ecology. Approaches include manipulative experiments, simulations/modeling, and correlated observations to connect organisms’ morphology and performance to some aspect of evolution, often connecting biomechanical results with organisms’ environments to investigate the adaptive evolution or origin of a trait. Specific analyses may include ancestorial state reconstructions, modeling of trait evolution, geometric morphometric analyses, finite element analyses, particle image velocimetry, computational fluid dynamics, gait analyses, inverse dynamics, and forward dynamics analyses. Evolutionary biomechanical studies can focus on extant and extinct organisms (including humans), relying on live animals, preserved specimens, and fossils for morphological information. As a result, evolutionary biomechanical studies are, by definition, interdisciplinary and can be highly variable, asking a wide range of questions, focusing on many different taxa, and using a variety of approaches. As a result, the publications mentioned in this article can include aspects of other headings. Overlapping areas of research would include “functional morphology, “functional ecology,” and “ecological morphology.” In addition, concepts in evolutionary biomechanics also overlap with other Oxford Bibliographies articles, including the Oxford Bibliographies in Ecology article "Functional Morphology of Animals" and multiple human-centered design articles. Biomechanical constraints are a form of evolutionary constraint that limit an organisms’ morphology or performance due to physical principles. For more information on constrains, see the Oxford Bibliographies in Evolutionary Biology article “Evolutionary Constraints". Biomechanics is also featured as a heading in the Oxford Bibliographies in Evolutionary Biology article "Tetrapod Evolution" providing information on the mechanics of tetrapod movement.

Overviews and Books

The field of evolutionary biomechanics is diverse, encompassing a variety of biological and engineering concepts. This section lists several publications that provide introductions to many of these important concepts. These publications can be useful as textbooks for comparative or evolutionary biomechanics courses as well as to assist researchers interested in biomechanics. General introductory texts include Wainwright 1982, Vogel 1988, Biewener 1992, Pennycuick 1993, Vogel 2000, and Vogel 2013. Any of these texts would be great introductory textbooks. Many of the concepts outlined in older publications represent the foundation of modern biomechanics, while newer texts may provide up-to-date concepts and examples. More specialized texts include Vogel 2012, which focuses on plant biomechanics; Alexander 2003 and Dickinson, et al. 2000, which cover animal locomotion; and Higham, et al. 2016, which considers a more evolutionary interpretation of biomechanics. The evolution component of evolutionary biomechanics often relies on the use of phylogenetic comparative methods to make evolutionary inferences. Revell and Harmon 2022 is the most recent source for these methods.

  • Alexander, R. M. 2003. Principles of animal locomotion. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Alexander is one of the pioneers of comparative biomechanics, with many of his earlier books and publications building the foundation for the field. This more recent book is a great modern introduction to locomotion, covering terrestrial as well as flight and swimming.

  • Biewener, A. A. 1992. Biomechanics—structures and systems: A practical approach. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Provides a foundational introduction to common biomechanical concepts while also connecting that information with how to measure and gather relevant data. While this is a great introduction to experimental methods relevant for biomechanics, the techniques described have likely been improved since this book came out.

  • Dickinson, M. H., C. T. Farley, R. J. Full, M. A. R. Koehl, R. Kram, and S. Lehman. 2000. How animals move: An integrative view. Science 288.5463: 100–106.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.288.5463.100

    Covers recent advances in our understanding of locomotion, highlighting the broadened roles muscles and non-propulsive lateral forces at play. Would complement many of the articles cited under Neuro-Muscular-Skeletal.

  • Higham, T. E., S. M. Rogers, R. B. Langerhans, et al. 2016. Speciation through the lens of biomechanics: Locomotion, prey capture and reproductive isolation. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 283.1838.

    DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2016.1294

    Walks readers through the process of reproductive isolation and speciation with an emphasis on how divergent behaviors driven by divergent morphologies may allow populations to move to different adaptive optima, with biomechanical tools linking behavior and morphology. The authors describe predator-prey interactions in fish to highlight their points. Would be a great introduction to the Functional/Ecological Morphology section.

  • Pennycuick, C. J. 1993. Newton rules biology: A physical approach to biological problems. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This short book is another great introduction to foundational concepts in evolutionary biomechanics and includes a chapter on the rarely considered concept of fractal objects. It also contains two chapters that are also rare among biomechanics texts, considering ecological and anthropocentric concepts and how they relate to biomechanical concepts.

  • Revell, L. J., and L. J. Harmon. 2022. Phylogenetic comparative methods in R. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Provides an in-depth introduction to modern phylogenetic comparative methods, using the R statistical environment as its chosen support software. It includes information on using R, investigating phylogenetic diversification patterns (extinction and speciation rates) and trait-related evolutionary patterns, including information for discrete and continuous traits.

  • Vogel, S. 1988. Life’s devices: The physical world of animals and plants. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Provides an easily accessible introduction to the many engineering concepts relevant for the study of biomechanics, making it a great introductory text to the field of biomechanics.

  • Vogel, S. 2000. Cats’ paws and catapults: Mechanical worlds of nature and people. New York: W. W Norton.

    This enjoyable read puts animal mechanics into the context of human engineering. Relating basic concepts of everyday items to animals provides a helpful perspective to start thinking about animals as machines. Vogel writes eloquently and accessibly.

  • Vogel, S. 2012. The life of a leaf. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226859422.001.0001

    This fun and accessible book focuses on biomechanical concepts relevant for plants. Unlike much of vertebrate biomechanics, the biomechanical concepts relevant for botany tend to focus on internal phenomena, asking how plants move liquids and gasses.

  • Vogel, S. 2013. Comparative biomechanics: Life’s physical world. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    Written in a typical textbook fashion, covering only fluid and solid dynamics, with fluids appearing first. Differences from the first to second editions appear to be the rearrangement and movement of some topics to the appendixes.

  • Wainwright, S. A. 1982. Mechanical design in organisms. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780691218090

    Another great biomechanics text. Unlike other introductory texts, it goes into detail explaining biological and mechanical phenomena (i.e., molecular organization) responsible for the biomechanical relationships we observe.

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