The key to winter survival: daily torpor in a small arid-zone marsupial
Mammalian hibernation, which lasts on average for about 6 months, can reduce energy expenditure by >90% in comparison to active individuals. In contrast, the widely held view is that daily torpor reduces energy expenditure usually by about 30%, is employed for a few hours every few days, and often occurs only under acute energetic stress. This interpretation is largely based on laboratory studies, whereas knowledge on daily torpor in the field is scant. We used temperature telemetry to quantify thermal biology and activity patterns of a small arid-zone marsupial, the stripe-faced dunnart Sminthopsis macroura (16.9 g), in the wild and to test the hypothesis that daily torpor is a crucial survival strategy of this species in winter. All individuals entered torpor daily with the exception of a single male that remained normothermic for a single day (torpor on 212 of 213 observation days, 99.5%). Torpor was employed at air temperatures (Ta) ranging from approximately −1°C to 36°C. Dunnarts usually entered torpor during the night and aroused at midday with the daily increase of Ta. Torpor was on average about twice as long (mean 11.0 ± 4.7 h, n = 8) than in captivity. Animals employed sun basking during rewarming, reduced foraging time significantly, and occasionally omitted activity for several days in sequence. Consequently, we estimate that daily torpor in this species can reduce daily energy expenditure by up to 90%. Our study shows that for wild stripe-faced dunnarts daily torpor is an essential mechanism for overcoming energetic challenges during winter and that torpor data obtained in the laboratory can substantially underestimate the ecological significance of daily torpor in the wild.