Pushing the limit: Masticatory stress and adaptive plasticity in mammalian craniomandibular joints

Matthew J. Ravosa*, Ravinder Kunwar, Stuart R. Stock, M. Sharon Stack

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

77 Scopus citations


Excessive, repetitive and altered loading have been implicated in the initiation of a series of soft- and hard-tissue responses or 'functional adaptations' of masticatory and locomotor elements. Such adaptive plasticity in tissue types appears designed to maintain a sufficient safety factor, and thus the integrity of given element or system, for a predominant loading environment(s). Employing a mammalian species for which considerable in vivo data on masticatory behaviors are available, genetically similar domestic white rabbits were raised on diets of different mechanical properties so as to develop an experimental model of joint function in a normal range of physiological loads. These integrative experiments are used to unravel the dynamic inter-relationships among mechanical loading, tissue adaptive plasticity, norms of reaction and performance in two cranial joint systems: the mandibular symphysis and temporomandibular joint (TMJ). Here, we argue that a critical component of current and future research on adaptive plasticity in the skull, and especially cranial joints, should employ a multifaceted characterization of a functional system, one that incorporates data on myriad tissues so as to evaluate the role of altered load versus differential tissue response on the anatomical, cellular and molecular processes that contribute to the strength of such composite structures. Our study also suggests that the short-term duration of earlier analyses of cranial joint tissues may offer a limited notion of the complex process of developmental plasticity, especially as it relates to the effects of long-term variation in mechanical loads, when a joint is increasingly characterized by adaptive and degradative changes in tissue structure and composition. Indeed, it is likely that a component of the adaptive increases in rabbit TMJ and symphyseal proportions and biomineralization represent a compensatory mechanism to cartilage degradation that serves to maintain the overall functional integrity of each joint system. Therefore, while variation in cranial joint anatomy and performance among sister taxa is, in part, an epiphenomenon of interspecific differences in diet-induced masticatory stresses characterizing the individual ontogenies of the members of a species, this behavioral signal may be increasingly mitigated in over-loaded and perhaps older organisms by the interplay between adaptive and degradative tissue responses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)628-641
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 2007


  • Adaptive plasticity
  • Degradation
  • Functional adaptation
  • Masticatory stress/load
  • Mechanical properties
  • MicroCT
  • Microanatomy
  • Rabbit
  • Symphysis
  • Temporomandibular joint (TMJ)

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Insect Science
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Physiology


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