Herbivores of temperate and arctic zones are confronted during winter with harsh climatic conditions and nutritional shortness. It is still not fully understood how large ungulates cope with this twofold challenge. We found that red deer, similar to many other northern ungulates, show large seasonal fluctuations of metabolic rate, as indicated by heart rate, with a 60% reduction at the winter nadir compared with the summer peak. A previously unknown mechanism of energy conservation, i.e., nocturnal hypometabolism associated with peripheral cooling, contributed significantly to lower energy expenditure during winter. Predominantly during late winter night and early morning hours, subcutaneous temperature could decrease substantially. Importantly, during these episodes of peripheral cooling, heart rate was not maintained at a constant level, as to be expected from classical models of thermoregulation in the thermoneutral zone, but continuously decreased with subcutaneous temperature, both during locomotor activity and at rest. This indicates that the circadian minimum of basal metabolic rate and of the set-point of body temperature regulation varied and dropped to particularly low levels during late winter. Our results suggest, together with accumulating evidence from other species, that reducing endogenous heat production is not restricted to hibernators and daily heterotherms but is a common and well-regulated physiological response of endothermic organisms to energetically challenging situations. Whether the temperature of all tissues is affected, or the body shell only, may simply be a result of the duration and degree of hypometabolism and its interaction with body size-dependent heat loss.
Acclimatization/physiology* Animal Feed Animals Body Temperature Regulation/physiology Circadian Rhythm* Cold Temperature* Deer/metabolism* Energy Metabolism Heart Rate/physiology Hot Temperature Motor Activity/physiology Seasons*