, Volume 191, Issue 4, pp 803–815 | Cite as

Thermal energetics and behaviour of a small, insectivorous marsupial in response to the interacting risks of starvation and predation

  • Christopher TurbillEmail author
  • Bronwyn M. McAllan
  • Samantha Prior
Physiological ecology – original research


Central to understanding animal ecology is how prey cope with the interacting risks of starvation and predation. This trade-off is modulated by the energy requirements of prey, yet relatively few studies have incorporated physiological mechanisms for energy savings when considering the behavioural response of prey to predation risk. In our study, we aimed to determine individual variation in behaviour, resting metabolism, body temperature and response to 24-h starvation within a captive population of fat-tailed dunnarts (Sminthopsis crassicaudata; 15-g insectivorous marsupials), and then, using semi-outdoor enclosures, test whether foraging effort and thermal energetics are adjusted in response to manipulation of ground cover, which for small mammals can simulate predation risk. We found that, under the low cover (high predation risk) treatment, dunnarts consumed less food and employed a greater daily reduction in body temperature between their active and rest phase. This result supports the hypothesis that rest-phase thermoregulatory energy savings are employed, even when food is available, if predation risk is perceived to increase the cost of foraging. Individuals exhibited correlated variation along two orthogonal axes incorporating the measured behavioural and metabolic variables, but these differences were not correlated with responses to starvation and predation risk. Our experiment demonstrates that flexibility in daily energy requirements provided by heterothermy can have important consequences for how small mammals respond to both starvation and predation risks. Such challenges are amplified in degraded habitat with introduced predators, making the capacity for heterothermy an even more important mechanism for survival.


Body temperature Energetics Foraging Predation Torpor 


Author contribution statement

CT conceived and designed the experiments; BM provided the study animals and advice on their husbandry; CT and SP performed the experiments, analysed the data, and wrote drafts of the manuscript; all authors contributed to and gave approval for the final version.


This study was funded by a grant from the Hermon Slade Foundation to CT (HSF 12/9) and an ARC Discovery Project grant to BMM (DP130101589).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable institutional and/or national guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. Experiments were conducted in accordance with the animal research authority no. A9949 approved by the Animal Care and Ethics Committee of Western Sydney University.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, Western Sydney UniversityRichmondAustralia
  2. 2.Physiology, School of Medical Sciences and Charles Perkins CentreThe University of SydneySydneyAustralia

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