Author Archives: alannahpearson

About alannahpearson

PhD candidate at the Australian National University in Canberra using virtual imaging to investigate changes to skull and brain form in fossil and living primates.

Primate Cranial Complexes

The primate skull is comprised of complexes including the cranial base, vault and facial region. How these complexes respond to different developmental and growth processes as well as varied selective pressures like diet, locomotion and sexual selection have been investigated in terms of modularity and integration. The concepts of modularity and integration concern the co-variance or independence of these complexes.

Profico et al. used several recent statistical methods to test previous research conclusions suggesting the primate cranial base and facial complex are strongly integrated. The cranium from 11 extant species of the Cercopithecoidea and Hominoidea were studied utilizing geometric morphometrics to investigate shape variation, the presence of evolutionary allometry and modularity or integration.

Shape variation of the primate cranial base and facial complex was assessed by Principal Component Analysis. Among taxa, shape variation of the cranial base reflected patterns in locomotion, cranial base flexion and the size of the foramen magnum. The shape variation of the facial complex reflected size-related and sex-linked morphology, the degree of lower and mid-facial prognathism and associated changes to narrowing of the nasal-orbital regions. Evolutionary allometry was tested by multivariate regression of size on shape and indicated the facial complex but not the cranial base was influenced by evolutionary allometry. Modularity and integration was analyzed using Partial Least Squares to test the degree of co-variation between the facial complex and cranial base which proved to be low. These combined results suggested the cranial base and facial complex complied with the concept of modularity rather than integration contrasting with previous studies.

An important reminder that although a pattern of similarity was found between Pongo pygmaeus and Hylobates lar this does not imply a close biological relationship, rather these taxa share similar cranial base and facial block morphology, potentially as a by-product of orthograde posture and the absence of quadrupedalism found in the other primate taxa with the exception of modern humans which are obligate bipeds. In light of the current findings, a more comprehensive reconsideration may be necessary of the effects from variation in the facial complex and cranial base morphology throughout primate evolution.

Alannah Pearson


Colin Groves (1942-2017)

Colin Groves (2017)

Emeritus Professor Colin Groves was an internationally-recognized and respected taxonomist in Mammalogy and Primatology. After completing his PhD dissertation at University College London in 1966 on Gorilla skull variation and taxonomy, Colin was appointed as lecturer at the Australian National University (ANU). Colin was an integral part of the ANU Biological Anthropology Department, welcoming discussions with internationally recognized researchers and undergraduate students alike, always made himself available and believed in an “open-door” policy for teaching. For me, he was an inspirational and influential mentor, teacher, colleague and friend who was an irreplaceable part of the Australian and International Primatology and Anthropology community. An online condolence book has been organised for those wishing to pay their respects.

Alannah Pearson

Digital Anatomy Education Tools

Educational medical resources provided by IMAIOS include interactive atlases and tools. The human e-Anatomy atlas combines digital imaging and computational tools for all anatomical regions from the human brain , with 3D reconstruction and labeling of neuroanatomical features, extending to the human pelvic girdle with 3D reconstructions of bones and arteries. Subscription to these utilities is useful for healthcare professionals but is focused on educational institutions and lecturers with access available for students enrolled in courses. For educational purposes, the resource includes quiz templates for each anatomical region and a virtual environment with enjoyable but educational tools for human lower limb anatomy using the Ninja Lower Limb game. The inclusion of resources for Veterinary Medicine with the vet-Anatomy atlas in similar design as the Human e-Anatomy atlas. All these tools are accessible through computer access and common mobile and tablet platforms in multiple languages.

Alannah Pearson

Modelling Skull Growth

The Finite Element (FE) method has increasing application to biological sciences but frequently lacks proper validation by robust experimental research. One aspect of particular biological and bio-mechanical importance is growth of the human infant skull. Specific local changes during growth of the infant skull are largely unknown with only the general rate of cranial increase from 25% at birth to 65% of the adult size by age six. The potential adverse effects of any abnormalities in infant skull growth is difficult to approximate if the isolated local areas likely to be most impacted are not accurately known. If properly validated, computer simulated modelling such as Finite Element methods would be invaluable in surgical settings. A new comprehensive study focusing on human infant cranial vault expansion utilized robust laboratory experiments of a fetal skull (ex-vivo), replicate physical model (in-vitro), several FE models (in-silico) and a sample of micro-CT infant skulls (in-vivo). The first validation tested a physical model against a FE model (A) in which the cranial base and facial bones formed a single structure with only the cranial vault comprising individual bones. The FE model (A) over-predicted size changes to the anterior of the skull especially near the orbits and mediolateral expansion of the skull. The second validation tested in-vivo models against an FE model (B) in which the only the facial bones formed a single structure while the vault and cranial base comprised individual bones. All analyses associated discrepancy between the FE model (B) and the in-vivo models with age-related changes. As age increased, the regions under-predicted by the FE model (B) were first the orbits and upper vault before tending toward the cranial base, while the regions over-predicted by the FE model (B) were focused on the anterior and posterior fontanelles.

This validation study showed that FE modelling could be used to approximate growth in the human skull with only small discrepancies. The differences between the predicted ranges of growth (FE models) and the observed growth (in-vivo models) was explained by assumption of isotropic brain expansion which simplified the highly complex and uneven growth rates in real brain expansion. The artificial construction of a single structure representing the facial bones added further constraints. The development of more advanced simulations could narrow the discrepancy between expected and observed growth patterns allowing a more accurate representation of human skull growth.

Alannah Pearson


Primatology Encyclopedia

 The International Encyclopedia of Primatology, a new multi-volume resource suited to an academic audience studying human and non-human primates with topics on evolutionary biology, genetics, behaviour, taxonomy and ecology.

Alannah Pearson


Advances in brain imaging

Klein et al 2017The diagnosis of human brain abnormalities depends on knowing the norm and yet defining the range of normal variation is still far from resolved. Understanding what is within the normal human range has been limited by samples and the constraints of producing accurate brain mapping. Access to large brain imaging databases has been possible for a while but producing reliable atlases of key structures including folding patterns (sulci, gyri and fundii), volumes and major shape changes has not had large enough sample sizes to reliably grasp the range of normal brain variation. Current approaches have relied on highly skilled professionals to assess neuroanatomy. While this approach is adequate, it does introduce an inherent level of subjectivity and potential bias with each neuroanatomist dependent on the individual level of experience. To begin reducing this error while increasing sample sizes, new computational technologies allow more automated imaging processes that combine speed and quality.

Mindboggle is a new software platform recently released after development through a long-term research project addressing a need for integrating morphometry (measurements of morphology) to assess the quantitative differences in brain structure. Mindboggle relies on specially developed algorithms to segment brain tissue in MRI images, produce volumetric and structural parallelization of the brain and asses shape variation. Klein and colleagues highlighted issues with similar algorithm-based software that produced errors in segmenting brain from non-brain tissue. Freesurfer was shown to underestimate grey matter while overestimating white matter, while ANTs included more grey matter yet sometimes excluded white matter that extended deep in gyral folds. To resolve this issue, Mindboggle employed a hybrid algorithm that overlays the Freesurfer and ANTs segmentation imaging then combines these to produce a more faithful imaging set negating any errors in volume estimates, folding patterns or shape differences. Further results indicated the geodesic algorithm produced an exaggerated depth for brain regions like the insula, while the time depth algorithm unique to Mindboggle produced more valid results for shallow brain structures than other comparable algorithms. Finally, Mindboggle was shown to be reliable with minimal error estimate showing a consistently greater shape difference between left and right hemispheres than the difference between repeated scans of the same individuals.

Mindboggle also introduced many new and innovative features for extracting and measuring fundii but these algorithms have not yet been thoroughly evaluated. Additionally, the Mindboggle algorithms are developed for human brain anatomy and expansion into non-human neuroanatomy has not yet been fully developed. The potential of Mindboggle and similar platforms lies in the allowance to expand knowledge of normal human brain variation by using much larger samples to more accurately capture the normal range in human neuroanatomy to better inform diagnoses of brain abnormalities.

Alannah Pearson

Brain Volume Database


The Internet Brain Volume Database (IBVD) is an online collection of neuroimaging data funded as a part of the international initiative, the Human Brain Project. The IBVD provides access data for both individual and among-group comparisons that allow total volume comparisons with parallelization of the brain into hemispheres, specific lobes or grey matter volumes. While the database contains data on humans, there is also non-human primate (macaque) and rat studies. A summary search provides information on sex, age and handedness as well as age-related pathology, neuro-psychiatric disease, structural disease and twin-studies (monozygotic and dizygotic). These selected individuals can be compared to normal studies or pooled into user-specified group results. For example, it is very easy to generate a plot of  left vs. right temporal lobe volume compared to age in normal human in vivo males and females.

Alannah Pearson

FEA, Validity & Sensitivity

fea-validity-smlThe Finite Element Method (FEM) was developed within the framework of Engineering but has become a popular tool in bio-mechanical studies. It is natural that computational bio-mechanics and Finite Element Analysis (FEA) became increasingly promising in fossil studies where there are no examples of some taxa still living. To study the bio-mechanical responses of fossil hominids, modern humans and non-human primates are often used as comparative samples for which there are already known values. Despite this, precisely how accurately computational bio-mechanics compares with physical studies is still not well understood. The biological composition of bone and dentition is hard to replicate in computational terms with the cranium a mixture of trabecular and cortical bone while teeth comprise variable layers of enamel and dentine. The resolution required from Computed Tomography (CT) scans to accurately capture these finer biological compositions is not feasible for the heavy demands on software to analyze such FEA models with flow-effects for the number of specimens that can be included into any single study.

Godinho et al investigated the validity and sensitivity of Finite Element (FE) models using a direct comparison with a human cadaver. Results were particularly affected if the model was simplified by assigning all materials as cortical bone, including dentition and trabecular bone components. Results showed that the real and virtual skull showed no differences in strain magnitude; differences in strain pattern (high or low strain distribution) were only partially different; simplifying the virtual model decreased the strain magnitude; simplifying the virtual model partially affected the strain pattern with the regions near the dentition, particularly the alveolar ridge, most affected.

For bio-mechanical studies, by not simplifying virtual models and attempting to designate dental and bone tissues properly acknowledges the underpinning biology of the cranium while potentially revealing sensitive adaptations of this biological structure. By adopting these changes, new variations between living and fossil humans, that have so-far been obscured by less time-consuming computational methods, could reveal unique adaptational trends that have real significance for human evolution.

Alannah Pearson

Which One? PLY vs. STL

3d-format As the use of virtual anatomy increases, awareness of different 3D mesh (digital model) formats is useful. Simply, a 3D mesh is the geometrical representation of an anatomical structure such as a cranium, endocast or tooth. Below, are the main differences, benefits, and uses of common PLY and STL 3D formats.

PLY (Stanford Polygon Format) is a 3D file format that was commonly developed from 3D surface scanners and photogrammetry software to allow the preservation of information on surface geometry while retaining information on RGB colour. STL (Stereolithography) is a 3D format commonly generated from software using only grayscale images such as raw CT (Computed Tomography) where RGB colour is not captured. 3D Printers only require preserved information on surface geometry, not colour, leaving STL to be a preferred format for 3D printing technologies.

Even though there is no discernible difference between the quality of the 3D mesh types, PLY format offers binary encoding of all information (including RGB colour). This results in a smaller file size, allowing less space occupied on a hard-drive or cloud-storage and faster loading of the 3D mesh into software programs as employed in 3D-geometric morphometrics.

Alannah Pearson

Carotid Artery and Primate Encephalisation

lemur-ica-editIn general, members of the Primate Order possess larger brains for body size than other mammals, with modern humans (Homo sapiens) evolving the largest brains. The Internal Carotid Artery (ICA) provides blood supply to the brain but there are distinct anatomical differences between the primate groups. While vascular and other soft-tissues are very rarely fossilised, evidence of the ICA passage is retained where it was encapsulated in bony tubes or as distinct grooves of the endocranial surface. The ICA evolved in primates from two main pathways in the auditory complex: the promontory artery branched from the cochlear space to supply blood to the brain while the stapedial artery branched from the obturator foramen of the stapes to provide blood to the cerebral meninges and the orbito-facial complex. Primate groups are recognised by ICA anatomy: Within the Strepsirrhini, Lorisiformes and Cheirogaleids both lack the stapedial and promontory arteries with the External Carotid Artery (ECA) supplying blood to the brain instead of the ICA; whereas, non-Cheirogaleids possess the ICA and stapedial artery but often retain a much smaller promontory artery, while the anthropoids (apes and monkeys) lack the stapedial artery entirely retaining only the promontory artery.

The evolution of these distinct differences was examined by comparing living and fossil primates and reconstructing the hypothetical phylogenetic pathways. The size differences between the stapedial and promontory arteries were compared to endocranial volume (ECV) to investigate the influence on brain size. Only the size of the promontory artery had a consistent correlation with brain size. There was no reported correlation between brain size and size of the stapedial artery, with the stapedial only correlating with size of the promontory artery. This suggests that throughout primate evolution, the trend for body and brain size increases caused the stapedial artery to become restricted as head size increased but size of the obturator foramen did not scale equally with the head. Most early primates evolved a reduction in the size of the stapedial artery and quickly accommodated an increase in the promontory artery allowing even greater blood flow to the brain and driving the encephalisation process and the eventual loss of the stapedial artery in anthropoids.

Alannah Pearson