Functional Linkages for the Pace of Life, Life-History, and Environment in Birds

Integr Comp Biol. 2010 Nov;50(5):855-68. doi: 10.1093/icb/icq024. Epub 2010 Apr 26.


For vertebrates, body mass underlies much of the variation in metabolism, but among animals of the same body mass, metabolism varies six-fold. Understanding how natural selection can influence variation in metabolism remains a central focus of Physiological Ecologists. Life-history theory postulates that many physiological traits, such as metabolism, may be understood in terms of key maturational and reproductive characteristics over an organism's life-span. Although it is widely acknowledged that physiological processes serve as a foundation for life-history trade-offs, the physiological mechanisms that underlie the diversification of life-histories remain elusive. Data show that tropical birds have a reduced basal metabolism (BMR), field metabolic rate, and peak metabolic rate compared with temperate counterparts, results consistent with the idea that a low mortality, and therefore increased longevity, and low productivity is associated with low mass-specific metabolic rate. Mass-adjusted BMR of tropical and temperate birds was associated with survival rate, in accordance with the view that animals with a slow pace of life tend to have increased life spans. To understand the mechanisms responsible for a reduced rate of metabolism in tropical birds compared with temperate species, we summarized an unpublished study, based on data from the literature, on organ masses for both groups. Tropical birds had smaller hearts, kidneys, livers, and pectoral muscles than did temperate species of the same body size, but they had a relatively larger skeletal mass. Direct measurements of organ masses for tropical and temperate birds showed that the heart, kidneys, and lungs were significantly smaller in tropical birds, although sample sizes were small. Also from an ongoing study, we summarized results to date on connections between whole-organism metabolism in tropical and temperate birds and attributes of their dermal fibroblasts grown in cell culture. Cells derived from tropical birds had a slower rate of growth, consistent with the hypothesis that these cells have a slower metabolism. We found that dermal fibroblasts from tropical birds resisted chemical agents that induce oxidative and non-oxidative stress better than do cells from temperate species, consistent with the hypothesis that birds that live longer invest more in self-maintenance such as antioxidant properties of cells.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aging / physiology
  • Animals
  • Basal Metabolism / physiology*
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Body Temperature / physiology
  • Climate
  • Environment*
  • Longevity / physiology*
  • Species Specificity