Caecilian jaw-closing mechanics: integrating two muscle systems


Caecilians (Lissamphibia: Gymnophiona) are unique among vertebrates in having two sets of jaw-closing muscles, one on either side of the jaw joint. Using data from high-resolution X-ray radiation computed tomography scans, we modelled the effect of these two muscle groups (mm. levatores mandibulae and m. interhyoideus posterior) on bite force over a range of gape angles, employing a simplified lever arm mechanism that takes into account muscle cross-sectional area and fibre angle. Measurements of lever arm lengths, muscle fibre orientations and physiological cross-sectional area of cranial muscles were available from three caecilian species: Ichthyophis cf. kohtaoensis; Siphonops annulatus; and Typhlonectes natans. The maximal gape of caecilians is restricted by a critical gape angle above which the mm. levatores mandibulae will open the jaw and destabilize the mandibular joint. The presence of destabilizing forces in the caecilian jaw mechanism may be compensated for by a mandibular joint in that the fossa is wrapped around the condyle to resist dislocation. The caecilian skull is streptostylic; the quadrate–squamosal complex moves with respect to the rest of the skull. This increases the leverage of the jaw-closing muscles. We also demonstrate that the unusual jaw joint requires streptostyly because there is a dorsolateral movement of the quadrate–squamosal complex when the jaw closes. The combination of the two jaw-closing systems results in high bite forces over a wide range of gape angles, an important advantage for generalist feeders such as caecilians. The relative sizes and leverage mechanics of the two closing systems allow one to exert more force when the other has a poor mechanical advantage. This effect is seen in all three species we examined. In the aquatic T. natans, with its less well-roofed skull, there is a larger contribution of the mm. levatores mandibulae to total bite force than in the terrestrial I. cf. kohtaoensis and S. annulatus.
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