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Muscle Activation Patterns and Motor Anatomy of Anna’s Hummingbirds Calypte anna and Zebra Finches Taeniopygia guttata

1Department of Biology, University of California, Riverside, California 92521; 2Department of Anatomy with Radiology, University of Auckland, Private Bag 92019, Auckland 1142, New Zealand; 3Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada

Flying animals exhibit profound transformations in anatomy, physiology, and neural architecture. Although much is known about adaptations in the avian skeleton and musculature, less is known about neuroanatomy and motor unit integration for bird flight. Hummingbirds are among the most maneuverable and specialized of vertebrate fliers, and two unusual neuromuscular features have been previously reported: (1) the pectoralis major has a unique distribution pattern of motor end plates (MEPs) compared with all other birds and (2) electromyograms (EMGs) from the hummingbird’s pectoral muscles, the pectoralis major and the supracoracoideus, show activation bursts composed of one or a few spikes that appear to have a very consistent pattern. Here, we place these findings in a broader context by comparing the MEPs, EMGs, and organization of the spinal motor neuron pools of flight muscles of Anna’s hummingbird Calypte anna, zebra finches Taeniopygia guttata, and, for MEPs, several other species. The previously shown MEP pattern of the hummingbird pectoralis major is not shared with its closest taxonomic relative, the swift, and appears to be unique to hummingbirds. MEP arrangements in previously undocumented wing muscles show patterns that differ somewhat from other avian muscles. In the parallel-fibered strap muscles of the shoulder, MEP patterns appear to relate to muscle length, with the smallest muscles having fibers that span the entire muscle. MEP patterns in pennate distal wing muscles were the same regardless of size, with tightly clustered bands in the middle portion of the muscle, not evenly distributed bands over the muscle’s entire length. Muscle activations were examined during slow forward flight in both species, during hovering in hummingbirds, and during slow ascents in zebra finches. The EMG bursts of a wing muscle, the pronator superficialis, were highly variable in peak number, size, and distribution across wingbeats for both species. In the pectoralis major, although the individual EMG bursts were much shorter in duration in hummingbirds relative to zebra finches, the variables describing the normalized amplitude and area of the activation bursts were otherwise indistinguishable between taxa during these flight modes. However, the degree of variation in the time intervals between EMG peaks was much lower in hummingbirds, which is a plausible explanation for the “patterned” EMG signals reported previously.