How does size affect the maintenance of a constant body temperature?

Staying warm is a subject close to many of our hearts during winter and we probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that animals from colder climes have higher rates of energy expenditure.  But is this true for all species, or is it more complicated than that?

Researchers from Uruguay, Daniel Naya and Hugo Naya, have joined forces with Craig White from the Centre for Geometric Biology to investigate how body mass in mammals affects the relationship between energy expenditure and climate. They found that, yes, energy expenditure was greater for species that live in colder regions but only in mammals smaller than 100 g. The effect became less marked as the animals got bigger. 

The Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) is a measure that represents the minimum amount of energy needed to maintain a relatively constant body temperature through active heat production.  It has been repeatedly demonstrated that there is a negative correlation between temperature and residual BMR in mammals and birds.

So where does body mass come into all this?  Over half of all mammals weigh less than 100 g although the range in body mass for mammals scales over 8 orders of magnitude. Also, smaller animals are generally easier to work with in the laboratory and so it is likely that much of our data on BMR in mammals comes from smaller species.

In order to untangle the effects of size on the ‘Temperature – BMR’ relationship, Daniel, Hugo and Craig looked at existing data on 458 mammal species. They compiled data on body mass, BMR and temperature from each collection site.  Their data set, as expected, included many more small species than big ones. What is more, their prediction that smaller species would be more dependent on adjustments in BMR to cope with lower temperatures, was confirmed.

There are other ways to maintain constant body temperatures apart from exerting more energy or increasing the Basal Metabolic Rate. Some examples include physiological adjustments, such as the separation of core and outer temperatures through peripheral vasoconstriction.  Behavioural adjustments, such as building / using shelters or changing activity levels can also help maintain body temperatures. Body shapes (surface to volume ratio), body colour, and the properties of body fat and skin can all affect heat retention, absorbance and loss.

Smaller species may have less scope for accessing these alternative solutions. This is because their smaller size may place restrictions on their adoption; including both physical restrictions (fur thickness is limited by body size) and biological restrictions (colour change or activity changes can increase predation risk). Such factors may mean that smaller mammals are more dependent on basal heat generation as a means of maintaining a constant temperature than are larger mammals.

The research team are keen to see if the same pattern of strong Temperature – BMR relationships at smaller body mass but not at bigger body mass, hold true with birds as well.

This research was published in The American Naturalist.