Energetic consequences and ecological significance of heterothermy and social thermoregulation in striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis)

Physiol Biochem Zool. Jan-Feb 2007;80(1):138-45. doi: 10.1086/509211. Epub 2006 Nov 28.

Abstract

We assessed patterns and energetic consequences of different overwintering strategies, torpor, and social thermoregulation in the striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis) under natural ambient temperature and photoperiod. Striped skunks entered spontaneous daily torpor, with the lowest torpid body temperature (T(b)) reaching 26.0 degrees C, the lowest recorded T(b) for a carnivore. Patterns of daily torpor differed between solitary and grouped skunks: all solitary skunks regularly entered daily torpor, but only some individuals in communal dens employed torpor. When they did, it was shallow and infrequent. Solitary skunks entered torpor on average 50 times (in 120 d) compared with 6 times for grouped skunks. During torpor, solitary skunks had average minimum T(b) of 26.8 degrees C and bout duration of 7.8 h, whereas grouped skunks had average minimum T(b) of 30.9 degrees C and bout duration of 5.4 h. Torpor by solitary skunks occurred during their activity phase, but grouped skunks' shallow torpor bouts were restricted to their diurnal resting phase. On average, grouped skunks experienced lower percent daily fat loss, and they emerged in spring with higher percent body fat of 25.5%. In contrast, solitary skunks emerged in spring with only 9.3% body fat. In conclusion, the use of daily torpor and social thermoregulation in northern populations of striped skunks represent two strikingly different mechanisms to minimize energetic costs and increase individual fitness in response to unfavorable environmental conditions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Temperature
  • Body Temperature Regulation*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Mephitidae / physiology*
  • Photoperiod
  • Seasons
  • Social Behavior
  • Temperature