Fastest Known Muscles Found in Songbirds' Throats

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Tiny twitching muscles on either side of rattlesnake rattles, along with muscles in the swim bladders of some fish, have been recorded approaching these speeds. (See photos of rattlesnakes in action.)

But Elemans's team concludes that songbird vocal cords move faster than any muscle in any other known vertebrate.

Since most songbirds have the same general type of vocal cords, the discovery could mean that extremely fast-moving muscles are more common in nature than was previously thought.

Synchronized Chorus

Daniel Margoliash, a biologist at the University of Chicago who was not involved with the study, called the paper "as elegant as it is exciting."

"We've been fascinated by bird songs for so long, and this gives us a very important insight into the vocal organs behind them," he said.

"We had no idea muscles could work at these superfast rates," he added. "That they can and do is just amazing."

Daniel Mennill, an avian biologist at the University of Windsor in Canada, noted that fieldwork has shown songbird vocalizations to be among the most precisely timed behaviors in the animal kingdom.

"The synchronized duets and choruses of wrens, for example, are the most highly coordinated animal behaviors ever recorded," he said.

"These [new] results explain a lot about how birds actually achieve such amazing technical feats."

Study leader Elemans said he is keen to continue his search for creatures with superfast muscles, and he thinks bats will be good candidates.

"Bats echolocate with an auditory sweep that rapidly moves from very high pitch to very low," he said.

"I'm convinced that there are fast-moving muscles behind this sonic sweep."

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