The western diamondback rattlesnake Crotalus atrox can rattle its tail continuously for hours at frequencies approaching 90 Hz. We examined the basis of these fast sustainable contractions using electromyography, data on oxygen uptake and the quantitative ultrastructure of the tailshaker muscle complex. The tailshaker muscle has no apparent unique structures; rather, the relative proportions of the structures common to all skeletal muscles appear to be present (1) to minimize activation, contraction and relaxation times via an extremely high volume density of sarcoplasmic reticulum (26 %) as well as, (2) to maximize ATP resysnthesis via a high volume density of mitochondria (26 %). The high rate of ATP supply is reflected in the in vivo muscle mass-specific oxygen uptake of this group of muscles which, at 585 ml O2 kg-1 min-1 during rattling at 30 °C body temperature, exceeds that reported for other ectotherm and many endotherm muscles. Since the change in oxygen uptake paralleled that of the rattling frequency over the range of measured body temperatures, there was a nearly constant O2 cost per muscle contraction (0.139±0.016 µl O2 g-1). Electromyo-graphic analysis suggests that each of the six muscles that make up the shaker complex may be a single motor unit. Finally, the maximum rate of mitochondrial oxygen uptake is similar to that of various mammals, a hummingbird, a lizard, an anuran amphibian and of isolated mitochondria (at 10 000-40 000 molecules O2 s-1 µm2 of cristae surface area, when normalized to 30 °C), suggesting a shared principle of design of the inner mitochondrial membrane among the vertebrates.

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