Anoles are the indisputable poster children of ecomorphology. Morphological, behavioral, and performance data support classification of Anolis species into discrete ecomorphs on the Greater Antilles islands. In a large part, the basis of this classification is due to variables (e.g. limb length) that relate to differing locomotor abilities (i.e. speed and/or stability) on the various substrates that comprise the different areas of the arboreal habitat. However, until recently, we knew nothing about how the muscles that power locomotion in these species relate to their ability to cope with the challenges of moving in these different microhabitats.
In a recent paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, we used a combination of electromyography and 3D high-speed video to examine the impact of perch diameter and incline on limb kinematics and muscle activity in Anolis carolinensis. Our previous study in the Journal of Experimental Biology found a number of kinematic changes (e.g. increased limb flexion and depression) associated with increased stability on narrow surfaces, and we hypothesized increased recruitment in the muscles associated with those movements. Interestingly, this was not the case. Despite considerable kinematic modulation with change in perch diameter (63% of the 32 kinematic variables were significantly affected by perch diameter), there was very little change in muscle activity (2% of the 100 muscle activity variables). This decoupling of kinematics and muscle function raises a number of very interesting questions relating to the sensitivity of these muscles to changes in operating length and the degree to which this species is specialized for a particular microhabitat. It also highlights the complexity of the physiological basis of animal locomotion and emphasizes the need for caution when attempting to infer motor control from kinematics and vice versa.
An additional result that may significantly impact identification of habitat preference in Anolis lizards relates to the importance of variability, as opposed to magnitude, of muscle activity in describing the differences in how this species handled the different substrate conditions. Specifically, the muscles examined were less variable on the broad perch compared to the narrow perch and on the vertically, as opposed to horizontally, inclined perch. Locomotor stereotypy is generally believed to reflect locomotor specialization, although reduced variation of in muscle activity may also be achieved as a byproduct of near-maximal muscle recruitment. However, we have little support for this second option, as the muscles were neither approaching maximal stimulation nor vastly different in overall magnitude or recruitment. Therefore the greater stereotypy of muscle activity seen in the green anole as it moved on the broad, vertical condition may reflect a physiological preference for tree trunks, rather than the narrower and shallower substrates that comprise (on average) the trunk-crown region to which it is traditionally assigned.
It is clear that there remains a wealth of knowledge waiting to be unearthed in the Anolis system and this paper barely scratches the surface. It emphasizes how little we understand about the complex nature of animal locomotion and the relationship between the muscles that power locomotion and the movements we observe in the field. And the possibility that variability of muscle activity might be a useful tool to identify functional preference for microhabitat is tantalizing and deserves further attention, especially if it can be applied usefully to mainland Anolis species. The remainder of my dissertation will focus on fleshing out these and other aspects of muscle function through the comparison of ecomorphs of the Greater Antilles.
Kathleen L. Foster & Timothy E. Higham. (2012). How forelimb and hindlimb function changes with incline and perch diameter in the green anole, Anolis carolinensis. Journal of Experimental Biology 215: 2288-2300. (DOI: 10.1242/jeb.069856)
Kathleen L. Foster & Timothy E. Higham. (2014). Context-dependent changes in motor control and kinematics during locomotion: modulation and decoupling. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 281: 20133331. (DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.3331)