Investigating the Intrinsic and Extrinsic Drivers of Primate Heterothermy
Seasonal heterothermy—an orchestrated set of extreme physiological responses—is directly responsible for the over-winter survival of many mammalian groups living in seasonal environments. Historically, it was thought that the use of seasonal heterothermy (i.e. daily torpor and hibernation) was restricted to cold-adapted species; it is now known that such thermoregulatory strategies are used by more species than previously appreciated, including many tropical species. The dwarf and mouse lemurs (family Cheirogaleidae) are among the few primates known to use seasonal heterothermy to avoid Madagascar’s harsh and unpredictable environments. These primates provide an ideal study system for investigating a common mechanism of mammalian seasonal heterothermy. The overarching theme of this dissertation is to understand both the intrinsic and extrinsic drivers of heterothermy in three species of the family Cheirogaleidae. By using transcriptome sequencing to characterize gene expression in both captive and natural settings, we identify unique patterns of differential gene expression that are correlated with extreme changes in physiology in two species of dwarf lemurs: C. medius under captive conditions at the Duke Lemur Center and C. crossleyi studied under field conditions in Madagascar. Genes that are differentially expressed appear to be critical for maintaining the health of these animals when they undergo prolonged periods of metabolic depression concurrent with the hibernation phenotype. Further, a comparative analysis of previously studied mammalian heterotherms identifies shared genetic mechanisms underlying the hibernation phenotype across the phylogeny of mammals. Lastly, conducting a diet manipulation study with a captive colony of mouse lemurs (Microcebus murinus) at the Duke Lemur Center, we investigated the degree to which dietary effects influence torpor patterns. We find that tropical primate heterotherms may be exempt from the traditional paradigms governing cold-adapted heterothermy, having evolved different dietary strategies to tolerate circadian changes in body temperature.
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