Bergmann meets Scholander: geographical variation in body size and insulation in the koala is related to climate

Briscoe, Natalie J., Krockenberger, Andrew, Handasyde, Kathrine A., and Kearney, Michael R. (2015) Bergmann meets Scholander: geographical variation in body size and insulation in the koala is related to climate. Journal of Biogeography, 42 (4). pp. 791-802.

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Aim: Body size often varies clinally, with dominant explanations centred on how body size influences heat exchange (e.g. Bergmann's rule). However, for endotherms, pelage properties can also dramatically alter heat exchange – a point emphasized by Scholander in the 1950s but which has received little attention in biogeographical analyses. Here, we investigate how geographical variation in both body size and fur properties of the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) is related to climate.

Location: Eastern Australia.

Methods: We measured head length and fur depths of koala museum specimens from across its geographical range, and quantified the relationship between fur depth and insulation. We used linear regression and regression tree analyses to test for associations between morphological traits and climate variables relating to four hypotheses: heat conservation (Bergmann's rule), heat dissipation, fasting endurance/survival of extremes, and productivity.

Results: Both body size and fur depth of koalas decrease substantially towards the tropics. Consistent with Scholander's view, fur properties showed stronger associations with climate than body size. Males, the larger sex, had shorter fur than females in hot environments but not in more temperate regions, suggesting that shorter fur compensates for sexual size dimorphism. While fur depth and male body size were more strongly associated with variables relating to heat dissipation, female body size was most strongly associated with minimum temperatures.

Main conclusions: Body size interacts strongly with other traits, such as fur properties, to influence how animals experience climate. Our results emphasize how the consideration of geographical variation in suites of functionally related traits can provide important insight into how species persist across broad environmental gradients.

Item ID: 38961
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1365-2699
Keywords: Australia; Bergmann's rule; body size; climate; geographical variation; insulation; koalas; Phascolarctos cinereus
Funders: Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment , Australian Research Council (ARC)
Projects and Grants: ARC Linkage grant LP0989537
Date Deposited: 19 May 2015 00:58
FoR Codes: 06 BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES > 0602 Ecology > 060203 Ecological Physiology @ 100%
SEO Codes: 96 ENVIRONMENT > 9608 Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity > 960806 Forest and Woodlands Flora, Fauna and Biodiversity @ 100%
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