Damaraland mole rats (DMRs, Fukomys damarensis) are a eusocial fossorial species that spend the majority of their life in densely populated underground burrows, in which they likely experience intermittent periods of elevated CO2 (i.e. hypercapnia). The primary physiological response to hypercapnia in most mammals is to increase depth and rate of breathing (i.e. hyperpnoea), but this response is often blunted in species that inhabit hypercapnic environments. In their natural habitat, DMRs putatively experience a gaseous environment ranging from normocapnic (0.1% CO2) to hypercapnic (6.0% CO2) conditions (Roper et al. 2001 J. Zool. 254, 101-107). As such, we hypothesized that DMRs would exhibit blunted hypercapnic ventilatory and metabolic responses, relative to those of non-fossorial rodent species. To test this hypothesis, we exposed awake, freely behaving DMRs to normoxic normocapnia (21% O2, 0% CO2, balance N2) or graded normoxic hypercapnia (21% O2, 0, 2, 5, 7 and 10% CO2, balance N2), and measured ventilation and metabolism using whole-body plethysmography and indirect calorimetry, respectively. We found that ventilation and metabolism were unchanged during prolonged normocapnia, whereas during graded hypercapnia, ventilation was elevated at 2% CO2 and above. As a result, O2 extraction efficiency at the lungs decreased with increasing hyperpnoea. Conversely, metabolic rate did not increase until 10% CO2, presumably due to the metabolic cost of hyperpnoea. Taken together, our results suggest that despite their fossorial lifestyle, DMRs do not exhibit adaptations in their ventilatory or metabolic responses to environmental hypercapnia.
Keywords: hypercapnic metabolic response; hypercapnic ventilatory response; hyperpnoea.