Dr. Michael Butcher, Associate Professor in Biological Science, in collaboration with biology student Zachary Glenn, published a research article in Journal of Mammalian Evolution in September 2017.
Title: Architectural Properties of Sloth Forelimb Muscles (Pilosa: Bradypodidae)
Authors: Rachel A. Olson, Zachary D. Glenn, Rebecca N. Cliffe, Michael T. Butcher
Tree sloths have reduced skeletal muscle mass, and yet they are able to perform suspensory behaviors that require both strength and fatigue resistance to suspend their body mass for extended periods of time. The muscle architecture of sloths is hypothesized to be modified in ways that will enhance force production to compensate for this reduction in limb muscle mass. Our objective is to test this hypothesis by quantifying architecture properties in the forelimb musculature of the brown-throated three-toed sloth (Bradypus variegatus: N = 4). We evaluated architecture from 52 forelimb muscles by measuring muscle moment arm (rm), muscle mass (MM), belly length (ML), fascicle length (LF), pennation angle (θ), and physiological cross-sectional area (PCSA), and these metrics were used to estimate isometric force, joint torque, and power. Overall, the musculature becomes progressively more pennate from the extrinsic to intrinsic regions of the forelimb, and the flexors are more well developed than the extensors as predicted. However, most muscles are indicative of a mechanical design for fast joint rotational velocity instead of large joint torque (i.e., strength), although certain large, parallel-fibered shoulder (e.g., m. latissimus dorsi) and elbow (e.g., m. brachioradialis) flexors are capable of producing appreciable torques by having elongated moment arms. This type of functional tradeoff between joint rotational velocity and mechanical advantage is further exemplified by muscle gearing in Bradypus that pairs synergistic muscles with opposing LF/rm ratios in each functional group. These properties are suggested to facilitate the slow, controlled movements in sloths. In addition, the carpal/digital flexors have variable architectural properties, but their collective PCSA and joint torque indicates the capability for maintaining grip force and carpal stability while distributing load from the manus to the shoulder. The observed specializations provide a basis for understanding sustained suspension in sloths.
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