We know that metabolic rate (a measure of energy use) tends to vary among individuals of different sizes and also with food availability. Lukas Schuster has been working with his PhD supervisors Craig White and Dustin Marshall to find out how metabolic rate changes with size in the colonial marine invertebrate Bugula neritina. They are also interested in how (or if) manipulating an organism’s size affects metabolic rate in individuals that were either starved or fed.
Lukas and his supervisors chose to work with Bugula because it is a colonial organism. These types of animals can be used for testing metabolic theories because the size of the colonies can be changed by removing fragments.
Lukas measured metabolic rate by measuring oxygen consumption of intact and size-manipulated colonies of Bugula that had been fed or starved as well as colonies that he had grown up in the field so he knew how old they were.
When Lukas measured metabolic rates for individuals of known age he found that rates increased proportionally with size across the different ages, that is, metabolic rate scaled isometrically with size when looking at individuals that ranged in age / developmental stage. In contrast, when he looked at metabolic rates for a specific age or developmental stage he found that rates didn’t scale proportionally with size but, instead, had allometric scaling as has been found in previous studies.
Lukas and his supervisors point out that it is important to be aware of these differences. Measuring metabolic rates of field-collected specimens of unknown age may result in isometric scaling of metabolic rate with size. Conversely, measurements of specimens at the same developmental stage is likely to result in allometric scaling where larger individuals have proportionally lower metabolic rates compared to smaller individuals.
To the team’s surprise, they also found that when they measured metabolic rate in size-manipulated Bugula that has been collected from the field, metabolic rate reverted to allometric scaling. Manipulating size in Bugula may lead to a leaking of nutrients through the pores between the zooids that make up the colony and this may be driving the change in the relationship of metabolic rates with size.
Bugula responded to food deprivation by reducing its metabolic rate, and conversely responded to feeding by increasing its metabolic rate, which was consistent with what other researchers have found in other species. But, in comparison to other species, the rate at which Bugula increased its metabolic rate following feeding, was rather low. This may also relate to the fact that Bugula is a colonial species but as there are very few studies investigating the way metabolic rate responds to feeding in colonial organisms, it is hard to know for sure.
Clearly, the relationship between size and metabolic rates in Bugula is complicated and may relate, in part, to the fact that Bugula is a colonial organism. But to fully understand the effects of size manipulation on metabolic rates and biological processes within Bugula colonies, further studies will be needed.