Neuronal networks in the turtle spinal cord have considerable computational complexity even in the absence of connections with supraspinal structures. These networks contain central pattern generators (CPGs) for each of several behaviors, including three forms of scratch, two forms of swim, and one form of flexion reflex. Each behavior is activated by a specific set of cutaneous or electrical stimuli. The process of selection among behaviors within the spinal cord has multisecond memories of specific motor patterns. Some spinal cord interneurons are partially shared among several CPGs, whereas other interneurons are active during only one type of behavior. Partial sharing is a proposed mechanism that contributes to the ability of the spinal cord to generate motor pattern blends with characteristics of multiple behaviors. Variations of motor patterns, termed deletions, assist in characterization of the organization of the pattern-generating components of CPGs. Single-neuron recordings during both normal and deletion motor patterns provide support for a CPG organizational structure with unit burst generators (UBGs) whose members serve a direction of a specific degree of freedom of the hindlimb, e.g., the hip-flexor UBG, the hip-extensor UBG, the knee-flexor UBG, the knee-extensor UBG, etc. The classic half-center hypothesis that includes all the hindlimb flexors in a single flexor half-center and all the hindlimb extensors in a single extensor half-center lacks the organizational complexity to account for the motor patterns produced by turtle spinal CPGs. Thus the turtle spinal cord is a valuable model system for studies of mechanisms responsible for selection and generation of motor behaviors. NEW & NOTEWORTHY The concept of the central pattern generator (CPG) is a major tenet in motor neuroethology that has influenced the design and interpretations of experiments for over a half century. This review concentrates on the turtle spinal cord and describes studies from the 1970s to the present responsible for key developments in understanding the CPG mechanisms responsible for the selection and production of coordinated motor patterns during turtle hindlimb motor behaviors.
Keywords: central pattern generator; fictive motor patterns; forms of a task; motor rhythms; neuronal networks.