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Am Nat. 2008 Oct;172(4):E122-34. doi: 10.1086/590957.

Latitudinal trends in digestive flexibility: testing the climatic variability hypothesis with data on the intestinal length of rodents.

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  • 1Center for Advanced Studies in Ecology and Biodiversity and Departamento de Ecología, Facultad de Ciencias Biológicas, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, CP 6513677, Chile.


Flexibility of digestive features can be understood considering the benefits of digestion, which links animal foraging to metabolizable energy and nutrient gain, and its costs, which are partly indexed by digestive tract tissue mass, one of the most expensive to maintain in terms of energy and protein metabolism. In this article, we applied a meta-analytical approach to current data on rodents' small intestine length flexibility to evaluate the climatic variability hypothesis (CVH). This hypothesis states the following: (1) as the range of climatic fluctuation experienced by terrestrial animals increases with latitude, individuals at higher latitudes should be more flexible to persist at a site; (2) the greater phenotypic flexibility allows species to occupy more habitats and to become more widely distributed. We compiled data from 25 articles, which provided a total of 86 estimations of flexibility involving 20 rodent species. Consistent with CVH predictions, we found a positive correlation between small intestine length flexibility and latitude and between small intestine length flexibility and the number of habitats occupied by different species. When seen from the perspective of digestive physiology, our analysis is an important piece of evidence on the adaptive value of digestive flexibility in small mammals.

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