Wing upstroke in birds capable of powered flight is kinematically the most complicated phase of the wingbeat cycle. The M. supracoracoideus (SC), generally considered to be the primary elevator of the wing, is a muscle with a highly derived but stereotyped morphology in modern flying birds. The contractile portion of the SC arises from a ventral sternum, but its tendon of insertion courses above the glenohumeral joint to insert on the dorsal surface of the humerus. To clarify the role of the SC during wing upstroke, we studied its contractile and mechanical properties in European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and pigeons (Columba livia), two birds with contrasting flight styles. We made in situ measurements of isometric forces of humeral elevation and humeral rotation and, in addition, measured the extent of unrestrained humeral excursion during stimulation of the muscle nerve. We also generated passive and active length-force curves for the SC of each species. Stimulation of the SC at humeral joint angles of elevation/depression and protraction/retraction coincident with the downstroke-upstroke transition and mid-upstroke produced substantially higher forces of long-axis rotation than elevation. When the humerus was allowed to move (rotate/elevate) during stimulation, we observed rotation about its longitudinal axis of up to 70-80 degrees , but humeral elevations of only 40-60 degrees above the horizontal (as measured in lateral view). In the active length-force experiments, we measured mean (+/-s.d.) maximal tetanic forces of 6.5+/-1.2 N for starlings (N=4) and 39.4+/-6.2 N for pigeons (N=6), unexpectedly high forces approximately 10 times body weight. The working range of the SC in both species corresponds to the ascending limb (but not the plateau) of the active length-force curve. The potential for greatest active force is high on the ascending limb at joint angles coincident with the downstroke-upstroke transition, a time when the humerus is depressed below the horizontal and rotated forward maximally. As the SC shortens to counterrotate and elevate the humerus during early upstroke, the potential for active force at shorter lengths declines at a relatively rapid rate. These findings reveal that the primary role of the SC is to impart a high-velocity rotation of the humerus about its longitudinal axis, which rapidly elevates the distal wing. This rapid twisting of the humerus is responsible for positioning the forearm and hand so that their subsequent extension orients the outstretched wing in the parasagittal plane appropriate for the subsequent downstroke. We propose that, at the downstroke-upstroke transition, variable levels of co-contraction of the M. pectoralis and SC interact to provide a level of kinematic control at the shoulder that would not be possible were the two antagonists to work independently. The lack of a morphologically derived SC in Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous birds precluded a high-velocity recovery stroke which undoubtedly limited powered flight in these forms. Subsequent evolution of the derived SC capable of imparting a large rotational force to the humerus about its longitudinal axis was an important step in the evolution of the wing upstroke and in the ability to supinate (circumflex) the manus in early upstroke, a movement fundamental to reducing air resistance during the recovery stroke.

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