The Company of Biologists Ltd
Novel functions in animals may evolve through changes in morphology, muscle activity or a combination of both. The idea that new functions or behavior can arise solely through changes in structure, without concurrent changes in the patterns of muscle activity that control movement of those structures, has been formalized as the neuromotor conservation hypothesis. In vertebrate locomotor systems, evidence for neuromotor conservation is found across evolutionary transitions in the behavior of terrestrial species, and in evolutionary transitions from terrestrial species to flying species. However, evolutionary transitions in the locomotion of aquatic species have received little comparable study to determine whether changes in morphology and muscle function were coordinated through the evolution of new locomotor behavior. To evaluate the potential for neuromotor conservation in an ancient aquatic system, we quantified forelimb kinematics and muscle activity during swimming in the loggerhead sea turtle, Caretta caretta. Loggerhead forelimbs are hypertrophied into wing-like flippers that produce thrust via dorsoventral forelimb flapping. We compared kinematic and motor patterns from loggerheads with previous data from the red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta, a generalized freshwater species exhibiting unspecialized forelimb morphology and anteroposterior rowing motions during swimming. For some forelimb muscles, comparisons between C. caretta and T. scripta support neuromotor conservation; for example, the coracobrachialis and the latissimus dorsi show similar activation patterns. However, other muscles (deltoideus, pectoralis and triceps) do not show neuromotor conservation; for example, the deltoideus changes dramatically from a limb protractor/elevator in sliders to a joint stabilizer in loggerheads. Thus, during the evolution of flapping in sea turtles, drastic restructuring of the forelimb was accompanied by both conservation and evolutionary novelty in limb motor patterns.
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