How do food passage rate and assimilation differ between herbivorous lizards and nonruminant mammals?

J Comp Physiol B. 1986;156(4):599-609. doi: 10.1007/BF00691047.


What digestive adaptations permit herbivorous nonruminant mammals to sustain much higher metabolic rates than herbivorous lizards, despite gross similarity in digestive anatomy and physiology? We approached this question by comparing four herbivorous species eating the same diet of alfalfa pellets: two lizards (chuckwalla and desert iugana) and two mammals (desert woodrat and laboratory mouse). The mammals had longer small and large intestines, greater intestinal surface area, much higher (by an order of magnitude) food intake normalized to metabolic live mass, and much faster food passage times (a few hours instead of a few days). Among both reptiles and mammals, passage times increase with body size and are longer for herbivores than for carnivores. The herbivorous lizards, despite these much slower passage times, had slightly lower apparent digestive efficiencies than the mammals. At least for chuckwallas, this difference from mammals was not due to differences in body temperature regime. Comparisons of chuckwallas and woodrats in their assimilation of various dietary components showed that the woodrat's main advantage lay in greater assimilation of the dietary fiber fraction. Woodrats achieved greater fiber digestion despite shorter residence time, but possibly because of a larger fermentation chamber, coprophagy, and/or different conditions for microbial fermentation. We conclude with a comparative overview of digestive function in herbivorous lizards and mammals, and with a list of four major unsolved questions.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Biological*
  • Animals
  • Diet
  • Digestion
  • Digestive System / anatomy & histology
  • Digestive System Physiological Phenomena*
  • Female
  • Gastrointestinal Motility
  • Lizards / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mammals / physiology*
  • Species Specificity