Ratios, adaptations, and the differential metabolic capability of avian flight muscles

Joseph R. Jehl, Annette E. Henry, David L. Swanson

Published online: 
6 November 2014

The eared grebe Podiceps nigricollis shows seasonal variation in the relative size of the major flight muscles that lift and lower the wing: respectively, supracoracoideus (s) and pectoralis (p). S/p ratios are low (≈0.07–0.12) when grebes are in flying condition, higher (≈0.11–0.15) when staging and flightless, and extreme (to 0.29) when starving. Shifts were driven by changes in the protein content in the pectoralis; intramuscular fat had little effect. S/p ratios also vary seasonally in the red knot Calidris canutus and are higher in birds newly arrived in breeding areas than at other times. If that increase was an adaptive response to promote wing-lifting in association with various breeding behaviors as suggested, one would expect it to result from an absolute increase in the post-arrival size of the supracoracoideus, which was not observed. Instead, we propose that it is unrelated to enhancing the upstroke but results from a decrease in the size of the pectoralis, which is a consequence of the greater rate at which this muscle is catabolized in times of exertion and stress, as at the end of a long migration or during starvation. Fuller data on the size, morphology and physiology of individual muscles at various stages of the annual cycle and migration will help to clarify how ratio changes are achieved, and evaluate potential adaptive significance.