Body temperature null distributions in reptiles with nonzero heat capacity: seasonal thermoregulation in the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis)

Physiol Biochem Zool. 2003 May-Jun;76(3):348-59. doi: 10.1086/375426.


Regulation of body temperature may increase fitness of animals by ensuring that biochemical and physiological processes proceed at an optimal rate. The validity of current methods of testing whether or not thermoregulation in reptiles occurs is often limited to very small species that have near zero heat capacity. The aim of this study was to develop a method that allows estimation of body temperature null distributions of large reptiles and to investigate seasonal thermoregulation in the American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis). Continuous body temperature records of wild alligators were obtained from implanted dataloggers in winter (n=7, mass range: 1.6-53.6 kg) and summer (n=7, mass range: 1.9-54.5 kg). Body temperature null distributions were calculated by randomising behavioural postures, thereby randomly altering relative animal surface areas exposed to different avenues of heat transfer. Core body temperatures were predicted by calculations of transient heat transfer by conduction and blood flow. Alligator body temperatures follow regular oscillations during the day. Occasionally, body temperature steadied during the day to fall within a relatively narrow range. Rather than indicating shuttling thermoregulation, however, this pattern could be predicted from random movements. Average daily body temperature increases with body mass in winter but not in summer. Daily amplitudes of body temperature decrease with increasing body mass in summer but not in winter. These patterns result from differential exposure to heat transfer mechanisms at different seasons. In summer, alligators are significantly cooler than predictions for a randomly moving animal, and the reverse is the case in winter. Theoretical predictions show, however, that alligators can be warmer in winter if they maximised their sun exposure. We concluded that alligators may not rely exclusively on regulation of body temperature but that they may also acclimatise biochemically to seasonally changing environmental conditions.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization / physiology*
  • Alligators and Crocodiles / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Body Temperature
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology*
  • Body Weight
  • Louisiana
  • Models, Biological
  • Seasons*