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Seasonal variation in energy expenditure in a rodent inhabiting a winter-rainfall desert

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Animals that spend more energy than they obtain risk entering allostatic overload, reducing survival and fitness. They are predicted to adjust their daily energy expenditure (DEE) during periods of food scarcity. Adjustments of DEE to changes in food availability have been well-studied in species in temperate zones during winter, but less so in species enduring seasonal droughts. Likely mechanisms regulating DEE involve adjustments of activity and maintenance metabolism. Species that experience seasonal droughts and changes in food availability, like the African striped mouse (Rhabdomys pumilio), are appropriate model organisms to study the regulation of seasonal changes of DEE. We quantified DEE using the ‘doubly labelled water’ method, measured resting metabolic rate (RMR), and concomitantly determined activity levels using all-day focal observations of 69 free-living striped mice in the cold moist season with high food availability and the hot dry season with low food availability. Striped mice decreased their DEE in the food scarce dry season using multiple mechanisms, especially reductions in RMR, and reduced overall physical activity. This was further facilitated passively by reduced thermoregulatory costs. Our study demonstrates that animals reduce DEE via active and passive mechanisms in food-restricted environments, and highlights that several environmental factors should be considered simultaneously when aiming to understand how animals cope with harsh environments.

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This study was made possible by the administrative and technical support of the Succulent Karoo Research Station (registered South African NPO 122-134). We are grateful for the support of Goegap Nature Reserve and the Department of Environment and Nature Conservation, and thank Ivana Schoepf for help with the initial respirometry setup, and Pratik Gupte, Jörg Jäger and Ingrid De Mattos for help with data collection. This work was supported by the University of Strasbourg Institute for Advanced Study (USIAS); the University of the Witwatersrand; the National Research Foundation (Grant No. 87769); and the CNRS.

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Authors and Affiliations



RR, CS, NP, SB conceived the idea and designed methodology; RR and MG collected the data; RR and AZ analysed the blood samples, RR analysed the data; RR, CS and NP led the writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed to the drafts and gave final approval for publication.

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Correspondence to Rebecca Rimbach.

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No competing interests are declared.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. Animals were captured and handled following protocols approved by the Animal Ethics Screening Committee of the University of the Witwatersrand (AESC 2014/40/B).

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Communicated by H.V. Carey.

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Rimbach, R., Blanc, S., Zahariev, A. et al. Seasonal variation in energy expenditure in a rodent inhabiting a winter-rainfall desert. J Comp Physiol B 188, 877–888 (2018).

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