Contractile properties of the pigeon supracoracoideus during different modes of flight

Bret W. Tobalske, Andrew A. Biewener

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The supracoracoideus (SUPRA) is the primary upstroke muscle for avian flight and is the antagonist to the downstroke muscle, the pectoralis (PECT). We studied in vivo contractile properties and mechanical power output of both muscles during take-off, level and landing flight. We measured muscle length change and activation using sonomicrometry and electromyography, and muscle force development using strain recordings on the humerus. Our results support a hypothesis that the primary role of the SUPRA is to supinate the humerus. Antagonistic forces exerted by the SUPRA and PECT overlap during portions of the wingbeat cycle, thereby offering a potential mechanism for enhancing control of the wing. Among flight modes, muscle strain was approximately the same in the SUPRA (33-40%) and the PECT (35-42%), whereas peak muscle stress was higher in the SUPRA (85-126 N m-2) than in the PECT (50-58 N m-2). The SUPRA mainly shortened relative to resting length and the PECT mainly lengthened. We estimated that elastic energy storage in the tendon of the SUPRA contributed between 28 and 60% of the net work of the SUPRA and 6-10% of the total net mechanical work of both muscles. Mechanical power output in the SUPRA was congruent with the estimated inertial power required for upstroke, but power output from the PECT was only 42-46% of the estimated aerodynamic power requirements for flight. There was a significant effect of flight mode upon aspects of the contractile behavior of both muscles including strain, strain rate, peak stress, work and power.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)170-179
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 2008


  • Flight
  • Force
  • Muscle
  • Power
  • Strain
  • Stress
  • Supracoracoideus
  • Work


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