The mechanisms of thermogenesis and thermoregulation were studied in the tree shrew (Tupaia belangeri) and greater vole (Eothenomys miletus) of the subtropical region, and Brandt's vole (Microtus brandti), Mongolian gerbil (Meriones unguiculatus), Daurian ground squirrel (Spermophilus dauricus) and plateau pika (Ochotona curzoniae) of the northern temperate zone. Resting metabolic rate (RMR) and non-shivering thermogenesis (NST) increased significantly in T. belangeri, E. miletus, M. brandti and M. unguiculatus after cold acclimation (4 degrees C) for 4 weeks. In T. belangeri, the increase in RMR and thermogenesis at liver cellular level were responsible for enhancing the capacity of enduring cold stress, and homeothermia was simultaneously extended. Stable body temperature in M. brandti, E. miletus, M. unguiculatus and O. curzoniae was maintained mainly through increase in NST, brown adipose tissue (BAT) mass and its mitochondrial protein content, and the upregulation of uncoupling protein (UCP1) mRNA, as well as enhancement of the activity of cytochrome C oxidase, alpha-glycerophosphate oxidase and T(4) 5'-deiodinase in BAT mitochondria. The RMR in O. curzoniae and euthermic S. dauricus was not changed, while NST significantly increased during cold exposure; the former maintained their stable body temperature and mass, while body temperature in the latter declined by 4.8 degrees C. The serum T(3) concentration or ratio of T(3)/T(4) in all the species was enhanced after cold acclimation. Results indicated that: (1) the adaptive mechanisms of T. belangeri residing in the subtropical region to cold are primarily by increasing RMR and secondly by increasing NST, and the mechanisms of thermogenesis are similar to those in tropical mammals; (2) in small mammals residing in northern regions, the adaptation to cold is chiefly to increase NST; (3) the mechanism of cold-induced thermogenesis in E. miletus residing in subtropical and high mountain regions is similar to that in the north; (4) a low RMR in warm environments and peak RMR and NST in cold environments enabled M. unguiculatus to tolerate a semi-desert climate; (5) O. curzoniae has unusually high RMR and high NST, acting mainly via increasing NST to adapt to extreme cold of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau; (6) the adaptation of euthermic S. dauricus to cold is due to an increase in NST and a relaxed homeothermia; and lastly (7) the thyroid hormone is involved in the regulation of cold adaptive thermogenesis in all the species studied.