Adam D. Foster, Michael T. Butcher, Gregory A. Smith, Gabrielle A. Russo, Rajaa Thalluri, and Jesse W. Young
Juvenile animals must survive in the same environment as adults despite smaller sizes, immature musculoskeletal tissues, general ecological naïveté and other limits of performance. Developmental changes in muscle leverage could constitute one mechanism to promote increased performance in juveniles despite ontogenetic limitations. We tested this hypothesis using a holistic dataset on growth and locomotor development in wild eastern cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) to examine ontogenetic changes in hindlimb muscle effective mechanical advantage (EMA). EMA is a dimensionless index of muscle leverage, equal to the quotient of average muscle lever length and the load arm length of the ground reaction force (GRF), effectively representing the magnitude of output force arising from a given muscle force. We found that EMA at the hip and ankle joints, as well as overall hindlimb EMA, significantly declined across ontogeny in S. floridanus, whereas EMA at the knee joint remained unchanged. Ontogenetic decreases in EMA were due to isometric scaling of muscle lever arm lengths alongside positive ontogenetic allometry of GRF load arm lengths – which in turn was primarily related to positive allometry of hindlimb segment lengths. Greater EMA limits the estimated volume of hindlimb extensor muscle that has to be activated in young rabbits, likely mitigating the energetic cost of locomotion and saving metabolic resources for other physiological functions, such as growth and tissue differentiation. An additional examination of limb growth allometry across a diverse sample of mammalian taxa suggests that ontogenetic decreases in limb joint EMA may be a common mammalian trend.