Ecological consequences of temperature regulation: Why might the mountain pygmy possum Burramys parvus need to hibernate near underground streams?
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The mountain pygmy possum (Burramys parvus) is an endangered marsupial restricted to boulder fields in the Australian Alps, where it hibernates under the snow during winter. Understanding its habitat requirements is essential for conservation, so we examine here ecological implications of the thermal consequences of maintaining water balance during the hibernation season. Hibernating mountain pygmy possums arousing to consume water must either drink liquid water or consume snow. If they drink water, then the energy required to warm that water to body temperature(4.18 J g-1 °C-1) increases linearly with mass ingested. If they eat snow, then the energy required melt the snow (latent heat of fusion = 332 J g-1) and then warm it to body temperature is much higher than just drinking. For mountain pygmy possums, these energetic costs are a large proportion (up to 19%) of their average daily metabolic rate during the hibernation period and may dramatically shorten it. If mountain pygmy possums lose water equivalent to 5% of body mass before arousing to rehydrate, then the potential hibernation period is reduced by 30 days for consuming snow compared with 8.6 days for drinking water. The consequences of ingesting snow rather than liquid water are even more severe for juvenile possums. A reduction in the hibernation period can impact on the overwinter survival, a key factor determining demographics and population size. Therefore, habitats with subnivean access to liquid water during winter, such as those with subterranean streams running under boulder fields, may be of particular value.
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