Many animals perform elaborate physical displays for social communication. Identifying molecular mechanisms that co-evolve with these complex behavioral signals can therefore help reveal how forces of selection shape animal design. To study this issue, we examine gene expression profiles in select skeletal muscles that actuate woodpecker drum displays. This remarkable whole-body signal is produced when individuals rapidly hammer their bill against trees. We find that, compared to muscles that play no part in producing this behavior, the main muscle used to drum abundantly expresses two genes that encode proteins that support myocytic calcium (Ca2+) handling dynamics—namely parvalbumin (PV) and sarcoplasmic reticulum Ca2+ ATPase (SERCA1). Meanwhile, we find no such difference in the expression of another gene similarly vital to Ca2+ handling, the ryanodine receptor (RYR1). These differences are not present in a non-woodpecker species, which readily produce much slower drum-like movements for foraging (but not social signaling). Our data therefore point to an association between the fast drum displays of woodpeckers and muscle-specific expression of genes whose protein products enhance select aspects of myocytic Ca2+ handling.
Eric R. Schuppe, John O. Petersen, and Matthew J. Fuxjager