, Volume 177, Issue 8, pp 885-892
Date: 03 Aug 2007

Basking and torpor in a rock-dwelling desert marsupial: survival strategies in a resource-poor environment

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Abstract

Australian deserts are characterized by unpredictability, low primary productivity, and high temperature fluctuations. Despite these adverse conditions the diversity of small insectivorous marsupials of the family Dasyuridae is surprisingly high. We quantified the thermal biology of the dasyurid Pseudantechinus madonnellensis (body mass ∼30 g) in the wild to gain some understanding of whether the success of dasyurids in the arid zone may be related to some extent to their use of energy conservation strategies. In winter, most free-ranging Pseudantechinus frequently (58.3% of 131 animal days) entered daily torpor after midnight (mean 0157 hours) in rock crevices when outside ambient temperatures (T a) were low. Most animals remained torpid until the next morning when they moved while still torpid from rock crevices to sun-exposed basking sites. We visually observed basking during rewarming from torpor (mean commencement at 0943 hours) at body temperatures (T b) as low as 19.3°C when radiant heat was high and T a was rising. Basking continued for the rest of the day. Torpor use was not strongly correlated with T a, but the temporal organization of daily torpor and activity were apparently linked to the thermal characteristics of basking sites. Our study suggests that by frequently employing daily torpor and basking and by appropriately coordinating their thermal biology with that of specific locations in their environment, Pseudantechinus can reduce daily energy expenditure and thus can live and reproduce in a challenging environment. It is likely that the success of other small dasyurids and perhaps many other small mammals living in deserts is linked to employment of torpor and basking for energy conservation.

Communicated by I.D. Hume.