Chimpanzee super strength and human skeletal muscle evolution [Anthropology]
Since at least the 1920s, it has been reported that common chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) differ from humans in being capable of exceptional feats of “super strength,” both in the wild and in captive environments. A mix of anecdotal and more controlled studies provides some support for this view; however, a critical review of available data suggests that chimpanzee mass-specific muscular performance is a more modest 1.5 times greater than humans on average. Hypotheses for the muscular basis of this performance differential have included greater isometric force-generating capabilities, faster maximum shortening velocities, and/or a difference in myosin heavy chain (MHC) isoform content in chimpanzee relative to human skeletal muscle. Here, we show that chimpanzee muscle is similar to human muscle in its single-fiber contractile properties, but exhibits a much higher fraction of MHC II isoforms. Unlike humans, chimpanzee muscle is composed of ∼67% fast-twitch fibers (MHC IIa+IId). Computer simulations of species-specific whole-muscle models indicate that maximum dynamic force and power output is 1.35 times higher in a chimpanzee muscle than a human muscle of similar size. Thus, the superior mass-specific muscular performance of chimpanzees does not stem from differences in isometric force-generating capabilities or maximum shortening velocities—as has long been suggested—but rather is due in part to differences in MHC isoform content and fiber length. We propose that the hominin lineage experienced a decline in maximum dynamic force and power output during the past 7–8 million years in response to selection for repetitive, low-cost contractile behavior.
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