Seasonal changes in morphology and function of the gastrointestinal tract of free-living alpine marmots (Marmota marmota)
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The gastrointestinal tracts of 76 free-living alpine marmots (Marmota marmota) shot during a population control program in Switzerland were collected and analysed for patterns of change in morphology and function over the period from emergence from hibernation in April to just before re-entry into hibernation in September. Between first emergence and mid-summer (July) the fresh tissue mass of the stomach increased by 105%, the small intestine by 259% (among the largest recorded for a mammal), caecum by 185%, proximal colon by 138%, and distal colon by 144%. Mitotic activity was greatest in the small intestine; the mitotic index was high (40%) compared with indexes in the stomach and hindgut (approximately 4%) even at emergence, and increased to approximately 60% by mid-summer. Microbial activity in the caecum was also significant at emergence. The stomach (length) and caecum (length and fresh mass) increased in response to ingested food earlier than did the small intestine. Between mid-summer and September there were decreases in small intestinal tissue mass and mitotic activity. It is concluded that the gastrointestinal tract of alpine marmots probably continues to function throughout hibernation at a low level, with a mid-winter trough as part of an endogenous circannual rhythm. However, after emergence in spring, increases in size and activity of the tract appear to be a response to ingested food rather than to an endogenous signal. The early signs of down-regulation of the small intestine before re-entry into hibernation, together with its delayed up-regulation in response to food in spring, are consistent with the high costs of maintaining this section of the digestive system.
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