Rethinking the use of finite element simulations in comparative biomechanics research

April 18, 2021

Z. Jack Tseng (1)
PeerJ, April 2021. DOI: 10.7717/peerj.11178


Biomechanics; Simulations; Functional morphology; 3D Models; Skull; Mastication; Comparative analysis; Form and function; Vertebrates


In the past 15 years, the finite element (FE) method has become a ubiquitous tool in the repertoire of evolutionary biologists. The method is used to estimate and compare biomechanical performance implicated as selective factors in the evolution of morphological structures. A feature common to many comparative studies using 3D FE simulations is small taxonomic sample sizes. The time-consuming nature of FE model construction is considered a main limiting factor in taxonomic breadth of comparative FE analyses. Using a composite FE model dataset, I show that the combination of small taxonomic sample sizes and comparative FE data in analyses of evolutionary associations of biomechanical performance to feeding ecology generates artificially elevated correlations. Such biases introduce false positives into interpretations of clade-level trends. Considering this potential pitfall, recommendations are provided to consider the ways FE analyses are best used to address both taxon-specific and clade-level evolutionary questions.

How Our Software Was Used

Dragonfly was used to perform threshold segmentation to select voxels from which three-dimensional skull models were constructed.

Author Affiliation

(1) Department of Integrative Biology and Museum of Paleontology, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA.