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Keywords:

  • animal locomotion;
  • high altitude;
  • hypoxia;
  • muscle design;
  • muscle fibre type;
  • skeletal muscle

Abstract

Like other camelids, llamas (Lama glama) have the natural ability to pace (moving ipsilateral limbs in near synchronicity). But unlike the Old World camelids (bactrian and dromedary camels), they are well adapted for pacing at slower or moderate speeds in high-altitude habitats, having been described as good climbers and used as pack animals for centuries. In order to gain insight into skeletal muscle design and to ascertain its relationship with the llama’s characteristic locomotor behaviour, this study examined the correspondence between architecture and fibre types in two agonist muscles involved in shoulder flexion (M. teres major – TM and M. deltoideus, pars scapularis – DS and pars acromialis – DA). Architectural properties were found to be correlated with fibre-type characteristics both in DS (long fibres, low pinnation angle, fast-glycolytic fibre phenotype with abundant IIB fibres, small fibre size, reduced number of capillaries per fibre and low oxidative capacity) and in DA (short fibres, high pinnation angle, slow-oxidative fibre phenotype with numerous type I fibres, very sparse IIB fibres, and larger fibre size, abundant capillaries and high oxidative capacity). This correlation suggests a clear division of labour within the M. deltoideus of the llama, DS being involved in rapid flexion of the shoulder joint during the swing phase of the gait, and DA in joint stabilisation during the stance phase. However, the architectural design of the TM muscle (longer fibres and lower fibre pinnation angle) was not strictly matched with its fibre-type characteristics (very similar to those of the postural DA muscle). This unusual design suggests a dual function of the TM muscle both in active flexion of the shoulder and in passive support of the limb during the stance phase, pulling the forelimb to the trunk. This functional specialisation seems to be well suited to a quadruped species that needs to increase ipsilateral stability of the limb during the support phase of the pacing gait. Compared with other species, llama skeletal muscles are well suited for greater force generation combined with higher fatigue resistance during exercise. These characteristics are interpreted as being of high adaptive value, given the llama’s habitat and its use as a pack animal.