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The maximum attainable body size of herbivorous mammals: morphophysiological constraints on foregut, and adaptations of hindgut fermenters

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An oft-cited nutritional advantage of large body size is that larger animals have lower relative energy requirements and that, due to their increased gastrointestinal tract (GIT) capacity, they achieve longer ingesta passage rates, which allows them to use forage of lower quality. However, the fermentation of plant material cannot be optimized endlessly; there is a time when plant fibre is totally fermented, and another when energy losses due to methanogenic bacteria become punitive. Therefore, very large herbivores would need to evolve adaptations for a comparative acceleration of ingesta passage. To our knowledge, this phenomenon has not been emphasized in the literature to date. We propose that, among the extant herbivores, elephants, with their comparatively fast passage rate and low digestibility coefficients, are indicators of a trend that allowed even larger hindgut fermenting mammals to exist. The limited existing anatomical data on large hindgut fermenters suggests that both a relative shortening of the GIT, an increase in GIT diameter, and a reduced caecum might contribute to relatively faster ingesta passage; however, more anatomical data is needed to verify these hypotheses. The digestive physiology of large foregut fermenters presents a unique problem: ruminant—and nonruminant—forestomachs were designed to delay ingesta passage, and they limit food intake as a side effect. Therefore, with increasing body size and increasing absolute energy requirements, their relative capacity has to increase in order to compensate for this intake limitation. It seems that the foregut fermenting ungulates did not evolve species in which the intake-limiting effect of the foregut could be reduced, e.g. by special bypass structures, and hence this digestive model imposed an intrinsic body size limit. This limit will be lower the more the natural diet enhances the ingesta retention and hence the intake-limiting effect. Therefore, due to the mechanical characteristics of grass, grazing ruminants cannot become as big as the largest browsing ruminant. Ruminants are not absent from the very large body size classes because their digestive physiology offers no particular advantage, but because their digestive physiology itself intrinsically imposes a body size limit. We suggest that the decreasing ability for colonic water absorption in large grazing ruminants and the largest extant foregut fermenter, the hippopotamus, are an indication of this limit, and are the outcome of the competition of organs for the available space within the abdominal cavity. Our hypotheses are supported by the fossil record on extinct ruminant/tylopod species which did not, with the possible exception of the Sivatheriinae, surpass extant species in maximum body size. In contrast to foregut fermentation, the GIT design of hindgut fermenters allows adaptations for relative passage acceleration, which explains why very large extinct mammalian herbivores are thought to have been hindgut fermenters.

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  1. Regression lines were calculated and compared according to Sachs (1997) using the SSS software (Rubisoft software GmbH, Puchheim, Germany, 1998).

  2. The proportionally largest forestomach occurs in sloths, in which its capacity can be up to 30% of body weight (Langer 1988). Sloths have, if at all, only rudimentary caeca and a short large intestine (Stevens and Hume 1995). These animals have very low metabolic rates (McNab 1978), a low food intake (Nagy and Montgomery 1980), long retention times, and defecate only about once per week (Montgomery and Sunquist 1978)—options obviously not available for large ungulates.


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We thank M. Clauss and V. Margerie for support in literature acquisition, and A.W. Milewski and T.J. Foose for comments upon the manuscript. A.W. Milewski provided the spark for this review.

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Clauss, M., Frey, R., Kiefer, B. et al. The maximum attainable body size of herbivorous mammals: morphophysiological constraints on foregut, and adaptations of hindgut fermenters. Oecologia 136, 14–27 (2003).

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