Recent work has shown that the use of torpor for energy conservation increases after forest fires in heterothermic mammals, probably in response to the reduction of food. However, the specific environmental cues for this increased torpor expression remain unknown. It is possible that smoke and the novel substrate of charcoal and ash act as signals for an impending period of starvation requiring torpor. We therefore tested the hypothesis that the combined cues of smoke, a charcoal/ash substrate and food shortage will enhance torpor expression in a small forest-dwelling marsupial, the yellow-footed antechinus (Antechinus flavipes), because like other animals that live in fire-prone habitats they must effectively respond to fires to ensure survival. Activity and body temperature patterns of individuals in outdoor aviaries were measured under natural environmental conditions. All individuals were strictly nocturnal, but diurnal activity was observed shortly after smoke exposure. Overall, torpor in females was longer and deeper than that in males. Interestingly, while both males and females increased daily torpor duration during food restriction by >2-fold as anticipated, a combination of food restriction and smoke exposure on a charcoal/ash substrate further increased daily torpor duration by ∼2-fold in both sexes. These data show that this combination of cues for torpor induction is stronger than food shortage on its own. Our study provides significant new information on how a small forest-dwelling mammal responds to fire cues during and immediately after a fire and identifies a new, not previously recognised, regulatory mechanism for thermal biology in mammals.
The authors declare no competing or financial interests.
C.S. designed the study, conducted the experiments and analysed the data. F.G. provided logistical support. All authors wrote the manuscript.
This research was funded by a University of New England Postdoctoral Research Fellowship and an Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award to C.S., the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst) and the A.F.W. Schimper-Stiftung für Ökologische Forschungen to J.N. and the Australian Research Council to F.G.
- Received July 21, 2016.
- Accepted October 20, 2016.
- © 2017. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd