In an attempt to assess the physiological function(s) of the external (E) and internal interosseous (I) intercostal muscles, we measured the changes in intercostal muscle length during spontaneous breathing, during passive inflation, and during passive rotation of the trunk. Studies were performed on 46 muscles from 16 supine anesthetized dogs, and changes in muscle length were assessed by sonomicrometry. The changes were small during spontaneous breathing, whether before or after bilateral phrenicotomy, and the pattern was variable among animals and among interspaces. The E, however, particularly in the lower interspaces, often lengthened with inspiration, and the I, in particular in the upper interspaces, often shortened with inspiration. Only occasionally did the E and I in one interspace change in length in opposing directions. This was also true during passive inflation, where both E and I usually shortened in the upper interspaces and lengthened in the lower interspaces. By contrast, during passive rotation of the trunk, the E and I systematically changed in length in opposing directions, and either muscle could successively lengthen and shorten a substantial amount depending on the side of rotation. These results suggest that 1) the E and I in supine dogs do not behave as antagonistic muscles during moderate respiratory efforts; and 2) they do behave as antagonistic muscles during rotation of the trunk. A primary function of these muscles as rotators of the trunk, unlike breathing, may explain why two layers of intercostal muscles with different fiber orientation exist between the ribs.