This work proposes the use of surface-based registration to automatically select a particular vertebra of interest during surgery. Manual selection of the correct vertebra can be a challenging task, especially for closed-back, minimally invasive procedures. Our method uses shape variations that exist among lumbar vertebrae to automatically determine the portion of the spinal column surface that correctly matches a set of physical vertebral points. In our experiments, we register vertebral points representing posterior elements of a single vertebra in physical space to spinal column surfaces extracted from computed tomography images of multiple vertebrae. After registering the set of physical points to each vertebral surface that is a potential match, we then compute the standard deviation of the surface error for each registration trial. The registration that corresponds to the lowest standard deviation designates the correct match. We have performed our current experiments on two plastic spine phantoms and two patients.