Animals at the extremes: The desert environment
Animals at the extremes: The desert environment

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Animals at the extremes: The desert environment

7 Conclusion

In this course we have studied animals in the context of their own habitat rather than using the traditional comparative physiology approach of comparing organ systems in different species. Although we have looked at extreme habitats, specifically deserts, it has become clear that, for many species, extreme physiological adaptations are not present and that even endotherms, birds and mammals rely on behavioural strategies, thereby reducing the need for physiological strategies that are costly in terms of water usage and energy. Furthermore, we have learned that desert animals do not always maintain homeostasis, a constant internal environment. There are species of birds and mammals, groups defined as homeotherms, that allow their T b to rise when T a is high; this relaxed homeothermy is seen in the camel, the oryx and ostrich. Physiological adaptations that we have seen in desert animals are also present in non-desert species, e.g. panting, sweating and the rete mirabile for brain cooling. Only by integrating biochemical, physiological and behavioural strategies can we understand how an animal survives and exploits its environment. Molecular biology is providing new insights and the little information that is available so far, has already provided another level of analysis to feed into integrative animal physiology. The puzzle of how desert lizards function normally at T b as high as 46°C may have been solved, at least partially, by the finding that these species have high cellular levels of heat-shock proteins that function as chaperone proteins.

We have also touched on the relatively new science of evolutionary physiology. In this context identifying the differences between acclimation, phenotypic plasticity and adaptation is of crucial importance as we saw from the studies on desert larks and Peromyscus. Once physiological traits shaped by natural selection have been identified, research on the evolution of such traits across species or higher taxa can be linked to evolutionary trees. One important issue is how does the physiology of an ancestral species affect what is possible in its descendants? Similar traits seen in closely related species might be there not because they are adaptive, but because they were inherited from a common ancestor – the phenomenon of phylogenetic inertia. Williams and Tieleman eliminated phylogenetic inertia as being the cause of the lower TEWL in desert lark species. Although the researchers identified a significant effect of phylogeny in the mass-corrected values for BMR there was also a significant effect of aridity on BMR that was independent of phylogeny. Statistical analysis of the data supported the researchers' view that natural selection is likely to be the process that explains the correlation between decreasing levels of BMR and TEWL with increasing aridity. Mueller and Diamond's study of Peromyscus species, obtained originally from diverse habitats but captive for 10–40 generations, showed that desert species had significantly lower BMRs than the species from more temperate habitats. This study provides evidence that lower BMR in the desert species is a genetic trait, not the result of acclimatisation or phenotypic plasticity.

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