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Elife. 2016 Apr 12;5:e13544. doi: 10.7554/eLife.13544.

Select forelimb muscles have evolved superfast contractile speed to support acrobatic social displays.

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Department of Biology, Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, United States.
Department of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, United States.


Many species perform rapid limb movements as part of their elaborate courtship displays. However, because muscle performance is constrained by trade-offs between contraction speed and force, it is unclear how animals evolve the ability to produce both unusually fast appendage movement and limb force needed for locomotion. To address this issue, we compare the twitch speeds of forelimb muscles in a group of volant passerine birds, which produce different courtship displays. Our results show that the two taxa that perform exceptionally fast wing displays have evolved 'superfast' contractile kinetics in their main humeral retractor muscle. By contrast, the two muscles that generate the majority of aerodynamic force for flight show unmodified contractile kinetics. Altogether, these results suggest that muscle-specific adaptations in contractile speed allow certain birds to circumvent the intrinsic trade-off between muscular speed and force, and thereby use their forelimbs for both rapid gestural displays and powered locomotion.


behavioral evoltuion; birds; courtship and social displays; ecology; manakins; muscle twitch speed; neuroscience

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