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Published July 15, 2010 | Published
Journal Article Open

Neuromuscular control of wingbeat kinematics in Anna's hummingbirds (Calypte anna)


Hummingbirds can maintain the highest wingbeat frequencies of any flying vertebrate – a feat accomplished by the large pectoral muscles that power the wing strokes. An unusual feature of these muscles is that they are activated by one or a few spikes per cycle as revealed by electromyogram recordings (EMGs). The relatively simple nature of this activation pattern provides an opportunity to understand how motor units are recruited to modulate limb kinematics. Hummingbirds made to fly in low-density air responded by moderately increasing wingbeat frequency and substantially increasing the wing stroke amplitude as compared with flight in normal air. There was little change in the number of spikes per EMG burst in the pectoralis major muscle between flight in normal and low-density heliox (mean=1.4 spikes cycle^(–1)). However the spike amplitude, which we take to be an indication of the number of active motor units, increased in concert with the wing stroke amplitude, 1.7 times the value in air. We also challenged the hummingbirds using transient load lifting to elicit maximum burst performance. During maximum load lifting, both wing stroke amplitude and wingbeat frequency increased substantially above those values during hovering flight. The number of spikes per EMG burst increased to a mean of 3.3 per cycle, and the maximum spike amplitude increased to approximately 1.6 times those values during flight in heliox. These results suggest that hummingbirds recruit additional motor units (spatial recruitment) to regulate wing stroke amplitude but that temporal recruitment is also required to maintain maximum stroke amplitude at the highest wingbeat frequencies.

Additional Information

© 2010 Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd. Accepted 11 April 2010. First published online June 25, 2010. We thank Scott Currie and Bob Josephson for comments on the manuscript and Qing Liu for assistance with digitization. Funding for this research was provided by a University of California Regents Faculty Fellowship, a National Institutes of Health National Research Service Award (5F32NS046221), and a National Science Foundation Award (IOS 0923849) to D.L.A., and by a National Science Foundation Award (IOS 0217229) to M.H.D. Deposited in PMC for release after 12 months.

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Published - Altshuler2010p10639J_Exp_Biol.pdf


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August 19, 2023
August 19, 2023