Daily rhythms of physiology and behaviour are governed by an endogenous timekeeping mechanism (a circadian 'clock'), with the alternation of environmental light and darkness synchronizing (entraining) these rhythms to the natural day-night cycle. Our knowledge of the circadian system of animals at the molecular, cellular, tissue and organismal levels is remarkable, and we are beginning to understand how each of these levels contributes to the emergent properties and increased complexity of the system as a whole. For the most part, these analyses have been carried out using model organisms in standard laboratory housing, but to begin to understand the adaptive significance of the clock, we must expand our scope to study diverse animal species from different taxonomic groups, showing diverse activity patterns, in their natural environments. The seven papers in this Special Feature of Proceedings of the Royal Society B take on this challenge, reviewing the influences of moonlight, latitudinal clines, evolutionary history, social interactions, specialized temporal niches, annual variation and recently appreciated post-transcriptional molecular mechanisms. The papers emphasize that the complexity and diversity of the natural world represent a powerful experimental resource.
Keywords: chronobiology; circadian; circannual.