Social variables exert selective pressures in the evolution and form of primate mimetic musculature

Anne M. Burrows, Ly Li, Bridget M. Waller, Jerome Micheletta

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Mammals use their faces in social interactions more so than any other vertebrates. Primates are an extreme among most mammals in their complex, direct, lifelong social interactions and their frequent use of facial displays is a means of proximate visual communication with conspecifics. The available repertoire of facial displays is primarily controlled by mimetic musculature, the muscles that move the face. The form of these muscles is, in turn, limited by and influenced by phylogenetic inertia but here we use examples, both morphological and physiological, to illustrate the influence that social variables may exert on the evolution and form of mimetic musculature among primates. Ecomorphology is concerned with the adaptive responses of morphology to various ecological variables such as diet, foliage density, predation pressures, and time of day activity. We present evidence that social variables also exert selective pressures on morphology, specifically using mimetic muscles among primates as an example. Social variables include group size, dominance ‘style’, and mating systems. We present two case studies to illustrate the potential influence of social behavior on adaptive morphology of mimetic musculature in primates: (1) gross morphology of the mimetic muscles around the external ear in closely related species of macaque (Macaca mulatta and Macaca nigra) characterized by varying dominance styles and (2) comparative physiology of the orbicularis oris muscle among select ape species. This muscle is used in both facial displays/expressions and in vocalizations/human speech. We present qualitative observations of myosin fiber-type distribution in this muscle of siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus), chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes), and human to demonstrate the potential influence of visual and auditory communication on muscle physiology. In sum, ecomorphologists should be aware of social selective pressures as well as ecological ones, and that observed morphology might reflect a compromise between the demands of the physical and the social environments.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)595-607
JournalJournal of Anatomy
Issue number4
Early online date11 Jan 2016
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2016


  • ecomorphology
  • facial expression
  • mimetic muscle
  • myosin
  • orbicularis oris muscle


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