Limbs of animals raised at warm ambient temperature are significantly and permanently longer than those of siblings housed in the cold. These highly reproducible lab results closely parallel the ecogeographical tenet described by Allen's extremity size rule, which states that appendage length correlates with temperature and latitude. It is unclear what mechanisms underlie these differences and in what pattern they emerge, since the morphology is traditionally thought to reflect naturally selected genomic adaptations for thermoregulation. This study tests the a posteriori hypothesis that adult extremity length is subject to substantial modification by temperature during a brief but critical period of early postnatal development. Weanling mice (N = 28) were divided into three groups and housed at 7°C, 21°C, or 27°C for eight weeks. Tail lengths and body mass were measured weekly. Mass did not differ at any age. Analysis of tail elongation curves revealed two distinct phases: an initial period of rapid temperature-sensitive growth in which elongation rate was directly impacted by temperature; and a second phase of continued growth in which rates were identical among groups. Comparable growth reactions occur in response to other environmental variables such as exercise, suggesting that the skeleton is most responsive to external stimuli during a window of heightened sensitivity when growth occurs most rapidly. Knowledge of the timing and degree to which growth plasticity permits mammals to immediately adjust to novel temperature conditions will be important for analyzing skeletal variation in fluctuating climates, particularly for assessing factors that may accelerate skeletal evolution at temperature extremes.
Keywords: Allen's rule; bone elongation; climate change; exercise; morphology; phenotypic plasticity; skeletal growth; temperature.
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