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J Exp Biol. 2009 Jul;212(Pt 14):2167-75. doi: 10.1242/jeb.030650.

The effect of short- and long-term fasting on digestive and metabolic flexibility in the Andean toad, Bufo spinulosus.

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Sección Evolución, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de la República, Montevideo 11400, Uruguay.


Hibernation in ectothermic animals was historically considered as a simple cold-induced torpor state resulting from the inability to maintain a high body temperature at low ambient temperatures. During the last decades this vision changed and nowadays there is a myriad of studies showing that hibernation implies different adjustments at the genetic, molecular, biochemical and cellular levels. However, studies oriented to evaluate changes of whole organism structure and physiology still are scarce, which is particularly true for amphibians that hibernate on land. Accordingly, in the Andean toad (Bufo spinulosus), we investigated the effect of short-term fasting and hibernation on the hydrolytic activity of digestive enzymes, histology of the small intestine, gross morphology of digestive and other internal organs and standard metabolic rate. Based on the pattern of size variation, internal organs may be grouped into those that were affected by both season and feeding condition (small intestine, stomach and liver), those that were only affected by season (fat bodies), those that were only affected by feeding condition (kidneys) and, finally, those that did not change between the three groups (large intestine, heart and lungs). Hydrolytic activity of maltase, trehalase and aminopeptidase-N followed the same pattern of variation (feeding > fasting > hibernating toads), although the change for the latter enzyme was less noticeable than for the disaccharidases. Enzymatic adjustments were correlated with changes in small intestine histology: villus and enterocyte height increased from hibernating to fasting and more markedly from fasting to feeding toads. Metabolic rate decreased during hibernation to 7.8% (at 5 degrees C) and 13.6% (at 15 degrees C) of summer values, which is one of the highest metabolic depressions reported for any ectothermic vertebrate. Our results suggest that amphibian persistence in highly seasonal environments is related to a large capacity of phenotypic flexibility at different organisational levels; an ability that may be related to the extensive ranges of temporal existence and geographic distribution of these vertebrates.

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