Much of what we know about animal locomotion is derived from studies examining animals moving within a single, homogeneous environment, at a steady speed and along a flat grade. As a result, the issue of how musculoskeletal function might shift to accommodate variability within the external environment has remained relatively unexplored. One possibility is that locomotor muscles are differentially recruited depending upon the environment in which the animal is moving. A second possibility is that the same muscles are recruited, but that they are activated in a different manner so that their contractile function differs according to environment. Finally, it is also possible that, in some cases, animals may not need to alter their musculoskeletal function to move under different external conditions. In this case, however, the mechanical behavior appropriate for one environmental condition may constrain locomotor performance in another. To begin to explore the means by which animals accommodate variable conditions in their environment, we present three case studies examining how musculoskeletal systems function to allow locomotion under variable conditions: (1) eels undulating through water and across land, (2) turkeys running on level and inclined surfaces, and (3) ducks using their limbs to walk and to paddle. In all three of these examples, the mechanical behavior of some muscle(s) involved in locomotion are altered, although to different degrees and in different ways. In the running turkeys, the mechanical function of a major ankle extensor muscle shifts from contracting isometrically on a flat surface (producing little work and power), to shortening actively during contraction on an uphill gradient (increasing the amount of work and power generated). In the ducks, the major ankle extensor undergoes the same general pattern of activation and shortening in water and on land, except that the absolute levels of muscle stress and strain and work output are greater during terrestrial locomotion. In eels, a transition to land elicits changes in electromyographic duty cycles and the relative timing of muscle activation, suggesting some alteration in the functional mechanics of the underlying musculature. Only by studying muscle function in animals moving under more variable conditions can we begin to characterize the functional breadth of the vertebrate musculoskeletal system and understand more fully its evolutionary design.

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