The broad range of contractile behaviour of the avian pectoralis: Functional and evolutionary implications

Brandon E. Jackson, Bret W. Tobalske, Kenneth P. Dial

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

28 Scopus citations


Wing-assisted incline running (WAIR) in birds combines the use of the wings and hindlimbs to ascend otherwise insurmountable obstacles. It is a means of escape in precocial birds before they are able to fly, and it is used by a variety of juvenile and adult birds as an alternative to flight for exploiting complex three-dimensional environments at the interface of the ground and air. WAIR and controlled flapping descent (CFD) are the bases of the ontogenetic-transitional wing hypothesis, wherein WAIR and CFD are proposed to be extant biomechanical analogs for incremental adaptive stages in the evolutionary origin of flight. A primary assumption of the hypothesis is that work and power requirements from the primary downstroke muscle, the pectoralis, incrementally increase from shallow- to steep-angled terrestrial locomotion, and between terrestrial and aerial locomotion. To test this assumption, we measured in vivo force, electromyographic (EMG) activity and length change in the pectoralis of pigeons (Columba livia) as the birds engaged in shallow and steep WAIR (65 and 85 deg, respectively) and in three modes of slow flight immediately following take-off: ascending at 80 deg, level and descending at -60 deg. Mean EMG amplitude, muscle stress, strain, work and power were minimal during shallow WAIR and increased stepwise from steep WAIR to descending flight and level flight to reach the highest levels during ascending flight. Relative to resting length of the pectoralis, fractional lengthening (maximum muscle strain) was similar among behaviors, but fractional shortening (minimum muscle strain) was absent during WAIR such that the pectoralis did not shorten to less than the resting length. These data dramatically extend the known range of in vivo contractile behavior for the pectoralis in birds. We conclude that WAIR remains a useful extant model for the evolutionary transition from terrestrial to aerial locomotion in birds because work and power requirements from the pectoralis increase incrementally during WAIR and from WAIR to flight.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2354-2361
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number14
StatePublished - Jul 2011


  • Electromyography
  • Flight
  • Pectoralis
  • Power
  • Sonomicrometry
  • Strain
  • Strain gauge
  • Stress
  • Wing-assisted incline running
  • Work


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