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The vertebral column, also known as the backbone or spine, is a bony skeletal structure found in vertebrates. It is formed from individual bones called vertebrae (singular: vertebra), which houses the spinal canal, a cavity that encloses and protects the spinal cord.
Individual vertebrae are composed of a centrum (body), arches protruding from the top and bottom of the centrum, and various processes projecting from the centrum and/or arches. An arch extending from the top of the centrum is called a neural arch, while the hemal arch or chevron is found underneath the centrum in the caudal (tail) vertebrae of fish, most reptiles, some birds, some dinosaurs and some mammals with long tails. The vertebral processes can either give the structure rigidity, help them articulate with ribs, or serve as muscle attachment points. Common types are transverse process, diapophyses, parapophyses, and zygapophyses (both the cranial zygapophyses and the caudal zygapophyses).
The centra of the vertebra can be classified based on the fusion of its elements. In aspidospondyly, bones such as the spinous process, the pleurocentrum and the intercentrum are separate ossifications. Fused elements, however, classify a vertebra as having holospondyly.
A vertebra can also be described in terms of the shape of the ends of the centra. Centra with flat ends are acoelous, like those in mammals. These flat ends of the centra are especially good at supporting and distributing compressive forces. Amphicoelous vertebra have centra with both ends concave. This shape is common in fish, where most motion is limited. Amphicoelous centra often are integrated with a full notochord. Procoelous vertebrae are anteriorly concave and posteriorly convex. They are found in frogs and modern reptiles. Opisthocoelous vertebrae are the opposite, possessing anterior convexity and posterior concavity. They are found in salamanders, and in some non-avian dinosaurs. Heterocoelous vertebrae have saddle-shaped articular surfaces. This type of configuration is seen in turtles that retract their necks, and birds, because it permits extensive lateral and vertical flexion motion without stretching the nerve cord too extensively or wringing it about its long axis.
Vertebrae are defined by the regions of the vertebral column that they occur in. Cervical vertebrae are those in the neck area. With the exception of the two sloth genera (Choloepus and Bradypus) and the manatee genus, (Trichechus), all mammals have seven cervical vertebrae. In other vertebrates, the number of cervical vertebrae can range from a single vertebra in amphibians, to as many as 25 in swans or 76 in the extinct plesiosaur Elasmosaurus. The dorsal vertebrae range from the bottom of the neck to the top of the pelvis. Dorsal vertebrae attached to the ribs are called thoracic vertebrae, while those without ribs are called lumbar vertebrae. The sacral vertebrae are those in the pelvic region, and range from one in amphibians, to two in most birds and modern reptiles, or up to three to five in mammals. When multiple sacral vertebrae are fused into a single structure, it is called the sacrum. The synsacrum is a similar fused structure found in birds that is composed of the sacral, lumbar, and some of the thoracic and caudal vertebra, as well as the pelvic girdle. Caudal vertebrae compose the tail, and the final few can be fused into the pygostyle in birds, or into the coccygeal or tail bone in chimpanzees (and humans).
The human vertebral column usually consists of 33 vertebrae; the upper 24 are articulating vertebrae, separated by intervertebral discs and the lower nine are fused, five fused in the sacrum and four in the coccyx. It provides the spinal canal, which houses and protects the spinal cord. It is commonly called the spine, or simply backbone.
The articulating vertebrae are grouped into their regions; there are seven cervical vertebrae of the neck (C1 to C7); twelve thoracic vertebrae of the thorax (T1 to T12); and five lumbar vertebrae of the lower back above the pelvis (L1 to L5).
This number is sometimes increased by an additional vertebra in one region, or it may be diminished in one region, the deficiency often being supplied by an additional vertebra in another. The total number of cervical vertebrae is, however, very rarely increased or diminished.
Fish and amphibians
The vertebrae of lobe-finned fishes consist of three discrete bony elements. The vertebral arch surrounds the spinal cord, and is of broadly similar form to that found in most other vertebrates. Just beneath the arch lies a small plate-like pleurocentrum, which protects the upper surface of the notochord, and below that, a larger arch-shaped intercentrum to protect the lower border. Both of these structures are embedded within a single cylindrical mass of cartilage. A similar arrangement was found in the primitive Labyrinthodonts, but in the evolutionary line that led to reptiles (and hence, also to mammals and birds), the intercentrum became partially or wholly replaced by an enlarged pleurocentrum, which in turn became the bony vertebral body. In most ray-finned fishes, including all teleosts, these two structures are fused with, and embedded within, a solid piece of bone superficially resembling the vertebral body of mammals. In living amphibians, there is simply a cylindrical piece of bone below the vertebral arch, with no trace of the separate elements present in the early tetrapods.
In cartilaginous fish, such as sharks, the vertebrae consist of two cartilaginous tubes. The upper tube is formed from the vertebral arches, but also includes additional cartilaginous structures filling in the gaps between the vertebrae, and so enclosing the spinal cord in an essentially continuous sheath. The lower tube surrounds the notochord, and has a complex structure, often including multiple layers of calcification.
Lampreys have vertebral arches, but nothing resembling the vertebral bodies found in all higher vertebrates. Even the arches are discontinuous, consisting of separate pieces of arch-shaped cartilage around the spinal cord in most parts of the body, changing to long strips of cartilage above and below in the tail region. Hagfishes lack a true vertebral column, and are therefore not properly considered vertebrates, but a few tiny neural arches are present in the tail.
The general structure of human vertebrae is fairly typical of that found in mammals, reptiles, and birds. The shape of the vertebral body does, however, vary somewhat between different groups. In mammals, such as humans, it typically has flat upper and lower surfaces, while in reptiles the anterior surface commonly has a concave socket into which the expanded convex face of the next vertebral body fits. Even these patterns are only generalisations, however, and there may be variation in form of the vertebrae along the length of the spine even within a single species. Some unusual variations include the saddle-shaped sockets between the cervical vertebrae of birds and the presence of a narrow hollow canal running down the centre of the vertebral bodies of geckos and tuataras, containing a remnant of the notochord.
Reptiles often retain the primitive intercentra, which are present as small crescent-shaped bony elements lying between the bodies of adjacent vertebrae; similar structures are often found in the caudal vertebrae of mammals. In the tail, these are attached to chevron-shaped bones called haemal arches, which attach below the base of the spine, and help to support the musculature. These latter bones are probably homologous with the ventral ribs of fish. The number of vertebrae in the spines of reptiles is highly variable, and may be several hundred in some species of snake.
In birds, there is a variable number of cervical vertebrae, which often form the only truly flexible part of the spine. The thoracic vertebrae are partially fused, providing a solid brace for the wings during flight. The sacral vertebrae are fused with the lumbar vertebrae, and some thoracic and caudal vertebrae, to form a single structure, the synsacrum, which is thus of greater relative length than the sacrum of mammals. In living birds, the remaining caudal vertebrae are fused into a further bone, the pygostyle, for attachment of the tail feathers.
Aside from the tail, the number of vertebrae in mammals is generally fairly constant. There are almost always seven cervical vertebrae (sloths and manatees are among the few exceptions), followed by around twenty or so further vertebrae, divided between the thoracic and lumbar forms, depending on the number of ribs. There are generally three to five vertebrae with the sacrum, and anything up to fifty caudal vertebrae.
The vertebral column in dinosaurs consists of the cervical (neck), dorsal (back), sacral (hips), and caudal (tail) vertebrae. Dinosaur vertebrae possess features known as pleurocoels, which are hollow depressions on the lateral portions of the vertebrae, which served to decrease the weight of these bones without sacrificing strength. Many researchers think that these pleurocoels were filled with air sacs, which would have further decreased weight. In sauropod dinosaurs, the largest known land vertebrates, pleurocoels may have reduced the animal's weight by over a ton in some instances, a handy evolutionary adaption in animals that grew to over 30 metres in length. In many hadrosaur and theropod dinosaurs, the caudal vertebrae were reinforced by ossified tendons. The presence of three or more sacral vertebrae, in association with the hip bones, is one of the defining characteristics of dinosaurs. The occipital condyle is a structure on the posterior part of a dinosaur's skull which articulates with the first cervical vertebra.
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