Indexed on: 21 Aug '15Published on: 21 Aug '15Published in: The Journal of experimental biology
Endogenous daily (circadian) rhythms allow organisms to anticipate daily changes in the environment. Most mammals are specialized to be active during the night (nocturnal) or day (diurnal). However, typically nocturnal mammals become diurnal when energetically challenged by cold or hunger. The circadian thermo-energetics (CTE) hypothesis predicts that diurnal activity patterns reduce daily energy expenditure (DEE) compared with nocturnal activity patterns. Here, we tested the CTE hypothesis by quantifying the energetic consequences of relevant environmental factors in mice. Under natural conditions, diurnality reduces DEE by 6-10% in energetically challenged mice. Combined with night-time torpor, as observed in mice under prolonged food scarcity, DEE can be reduced by ∼20%. The dominant factor determining the energetic benefit of diurnality is thermal buffering provided by a sheltered resting location. Compared with nocturnal animals, diurnal animals encounter higher ambient temperatures during both day and night, leading to reduced thermogenesis costs in temperate climates. Analysis of weather station data shows that diurnality is energetically beneficial on almost all days of the year in a temperate climate region. Furthermore, diurnality provides energetic benefits at all investigated geographical locations on European longitudinal and latitudinal transects. The reduction of DEE by diurnality provides an ultimate explanation for temporal niche switching observed in typically nocturnal small mammals under energetically challenging conditions. Diurnality allows mammals to compensate for reductions in food availability and temperature as it reduces energetic needs. The optimal circadian organization of an animal ultimately depends on the balance between energetic consequences and other fitness consequences of the selected temporal niche.