Glycogen, not dehydration or lipids, limits winter survival of side-blotched lizards (Uta stansburiana)

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Biological Sciences

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Climate change is causing winters to become milder (less cold and shorter). Recent studies of overwintering ectotherms have suggested that warmer winters increase metabolism and decrease winter survival and subsequent fecundity. Energetic constraints (insufficient energy stores) have been hypothesized as the cause of winter mortality but have not been tested explicitly. Thus, alternative sources of mortality, such as winter dehydration, cannot be ruled out. By employing an experimental design that compared the energetics and water content of lizards that died naturally during laboratory winter with those that survived up to the same point but were then sacrificed, we attempt to distinguish among multiple possible causes of mortality. We test the hypothesis that mortality is caused by insufficient energy stores in the liver, abdominal fat bodies, tail or carcass or through excessive water loss. We found that lizards that died naturally had marginally greater mass loss, lower water content, and less liver glycogen remaining than living animals sampled at the same time. Periodically moistening air during winter reduced water loss, but this did not affect survival, calling into question dehydration as a cause of death. Rather, our results implicate energy limitations in the form of liver glycogen, but not lipids, as the primary cause of mortality in overwintering lizards. When viewed through a lens of changing climates, our results suggest that if milder winters increase the metabolic rate of overwintering ectotherms, individuals may experience greater energetic demands. Increased energy use during winter may subsequently limit individual survival and possibly even impact population persistence.


This article was originally published in The Journal of Experimental Biology. The full-text article from the publisher can be found here.


The Journal of Experimental Biology


© 2012. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd