Mammals living in aquatic environments load their axial skeletons differently than their terrestrial counterparts. The structure and mechanical behavior of trabecular bone can be especially indicative of varying habitual forces. Here, we investigate vertebral trabecular bone mechanical properties (yield strength, stiffness, and toughness) throughout development in Florida manatees (Trichechus manatus latirostris), obligate undulatory swimmers. Thoracic, lumbar, and caudal vertebrae were dissected from manatees (N=20) during necropsies. We extracted 6 mm3 samples from vertebral bodies and tested them in compression in three orientations (rostrocaudal, dorsoventral, and mediolateral) at 2 mm min−1. We determined variation in mechanical properties between sexes, and among developmental stages, vertebral regions, and testing orientations. We also investigated the relationships between vertebral process lengths and properties of dorsoventrally and mediolaterally-tested bone. Rostrocaudally-tested bone was the strongest, stiffest, and toughest, suggesting that this is the principle direction of stress. Our results showed that bone from female subadults was stronger and stiffer than their male counterparts; based on these data we hypothesize hormonal shifts at sexual maturity may partially drive these differences. In calves, bone from the posterior region was stronger and tougher than from the anterior region. We hypothesize that since animals grows rapidly throughout early development, bone in the posterior region would be the most ossified to support the rostrocaudal force propagation associated with undulatory swimming.

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