Muscle serves a wide variety of mechanical functions during animal feeding and locomotion, but the performance of this tissue is limited by how far it can be extended. In rorqual whales, feeding and locomotion are integrated in a dynamic process called lunge feeding, where an enormous volume of prey-laden water is engulfed into a capacious ventral oropharyngeal cavity that is bounded superficially by skeletal muscle and ventral groove blubber (VGB). The great expansion of the cavity wall presents a mechanical challenge for the physiological limits of skeletal muscle, yet its role is considered fundamental in controlling the flux of water into the mouth. Our analyses of the functional properties and mechanical behaviour of VGB muscles revealed a crimped microstructure in an unstrained, non-feeding state that is arranged in parallel with dense and straight elastin fibres. This allows the muscles to accommodate large tissue deformations of the VGB yet still operate within the known strain limits of vertebrate skeletal muscle. VGB transverse strains in routine-feeding rorquals were substantially less than those observed in dead ones, where decomposition gas stretched the VGB to its elastic limit, evidence supporting the idea that eccentric muscle contraction modulates the rate of expansion and ultimate size of the ventral cavity during engulfment.
Shadwick, R.E., J.A. Goldbogen, J. Potvin, N.D. Pyenson, and A.W. Vogl. 2013. Novel Muscle and Connective Tissue Design Enables Hyper-Extensibility and Controls Engulfment Volume in Lunge-Feeding Rorqual Whales. Journal of Experimental Biology 216(14): 2691-2701. doi: 10.1242/jeb.081752Download PDF
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