The roles of enzymatic antioxidant defenses in the natural tolerance of environmental stresses that impose changes in oxygen availability and oxygen consumption on animals is discussed with a particular focus on the biochemistry of estivation and metabolic depression in pulmonate land snails. Despite reduced oxygen consumption and PO2 during estivation, which should also mean reduced production of oxyradicals, the activities of antioxidant enzymes, such as superoxide dismutase and catalase, increased in 30 day-estivating snails. This appears to be an adaptation that allows the snails to deal with oxidative stress that takes place during arousal when PO2 and oxygen consumption rise rapidly. Indeed, oxidative stress was indicated by increased levels of lipid peroxidation damage products accumulating in hepatopancreas within minutes after arousal was initiated. The various metabolic sites responsible for free radical generation during arousal are still unknown but it seems unlikely that the enzyme xanthine oxidase plays any substantial role in this despite being implicated in oxidative stress in mammalian models of ischemia/reperfusion. We propose that the activation of antioxidant defenses in the organs of Otala lactea during estivation is a preparative mechanism against oxidative stress during arousal. Increased activities of antioxidant enzymes have also observed under other stress situations in which the actual production of oxyradicals should decrease. For example, antioxidant defenses are enhanced during anoxia exposure in garter snakes Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis (10 h at 5 degrees C) and leopard frogs Rana pipiens (30 h at 5 degrees C) and during freezing exposure (an ischemic condition due to plasma freezing) in T. sirtalis parietalis and wood frogs Rana sylvatica. It seems that enhancement of antioxidant enzymes during either anoxia or freezing is used as a preparatory mechanism to deal with a physiological oxidative stress that occurs rapidly within the early minutes of recovery during reoxygenation or thawing. Thus, a wide range of stress tolerant animals display coordinated changes in antioxidant defenses that allow them to deal with oxidative stress that occurs as part of natural cycles of stress/recovery that alter oxygen levels in tissues. The molecular mechanisms that trigger and regulate changes in antioxidant enzyme activities in these species are still unknown but could prove to have key relevance for the development of new intervention strategies in the treatment of cardiovascular ischemia/reperfusion injuries in humans.