Beyond the '3/4-power law': variation in the intra- and interspecific scaling of metabolic rate in animals

Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2005 Nov;80(4):611-62. doi: 10.1017/S1464793105006834.


In this review I show that the '3/4-power scaling law' of metabolic rate is not universal, either within or among animal species. Significant variation in the scaling of metabolic rate with body mass is described mainly for animals, but also for unicells and plants. Much of this variation, which can be related to taxonomic, physiological, and/or environmental differences, is not adequately explained by existing theoretical models, which are also reviewed. As a result, synthetic explanatory schemes based on multiple boundary constraints and on the scaling of multiple energy-using processes are advocated. It is also stressed that a complete understanding of metabolic scaling will require the identification of both proximate (functional) and ultimate (evolutionary) causes. Four major types of intraspecific metabolic scaling with body mass are recognized [based on the power function R=aMb, where R is respiration (metabolic) rate, a is a constant, M is body mass, and b is the scaling exponent]: Type I: linear, negatively allometric (b<1); Type II: linear, isometric (b=1); Type III: nonlinear, ontogenetic shift from isometric (b=1), or nearly isometric, to negatively allometric (b<1); and Type IV: nonlinear, ontogenetic shift from positively allometric (b>1) to one or two later phases of negative allometry (b<1). Ontogenetic changes in the metabolic intensity of four component processes (i.e. growth, reproduction, locomotion, and heat production) appear to be important in these different patterns of metabolic scaling. These changes may, in turn, be shaped by age (size)-specific patterns of mortality. In addition, major differences in interspecific metabolic scaling are described, especially with respect to mode of temperature regulation, body-size range, and activity level. A 'metabolic-level boundaries hypothesis' focusing on two major constraints (surface-area limits on resource/waste exchange processes and mass/volume limits on power production) can explain much, but not all of this variation. My analysis indicates that further empirical and theoretical work is needed to understand fully the physiological and ecological bases for the considerable variation in metabolic scaling that is observed both within and among species. Recommended approaches for doing this are discussed. I conclude that the scaling of metabolism is not the simple result of a physical law, but rather appears to be the more complex result of diverse adaptations evolved in the context of both physico-chemical and ecological constraints.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological*
  • Animals
  • Basal Metabolism / physiology
  • Biological Evolution
  • Body Weight / physiology
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology*
  • Invertebrates / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological
  • Respiration
  • Species Specificity
  • Vertebrates / metabolism*