Seasonal body modifications

surprising changes in size and shape

A relatively simple –and familiar to most of us –kind of seasonal and reversible body-modeling occurs in bears preparing for hibernation, and beavers getting ready for snoozing in their lodges, or deer anticipating food shortages in winter. These species all put on fat in fall, becoming distinctly more portly. Come spring, they are more svelte, having burned up that winter fat. Humpback whale females migrating from Hawaii to the food-rich northern waters are much slimmer than in fall when on their way south. Similarly, migrating birds typically put on fat before they migrate and arrive at their seasonal destinations in trimmer condition.

Sometimes the reversible remodeling occurs in internal organs. Bar-tailed godwits and other birds that migrate very long distances without feeding on the way markedly reduce their digestive organs and regenerate them and resume feeding upon arrival. Chickadees, jays, nuthatches, and nutcrackers get bigger brains in fall; the part of the brain associated with processing spatial information is the hippocampus, which actually acquires more neurons. The temporarily larger hippocampus allows them to remember the widely scattered locations where they have stored seeds and retrieve them during the winter.

Brood-parasitic birds, which lay eggs in other birds’ nests, also have improved spatial memories—just in the nesting season. Two species of cowbirds in which the females monitor the locations of potential host nests have enlarged brains (hippocampus) in the nesting season. But in a third species of cowbird, in which both male and female monitor host nests, both sexes have seasonal changes in brain size.

Males of other birds (for example, starlings), get temporarily enlarged brains, especially the parts associated with singing, in spring, when males sing to advertise territory and attract females. European titmice that engage in strongly seasonal singing have corresponding seasonal changes in brain size, while those that vocalize year-round do not. Captive house sparrow males kept near females sang more often and had bigger brains than those isolated from females. These studies have focused on male birds and the production of song, but what about the females that listen to those songs?

It seems that the more we look, the more instances of seasonal remodeling we find. Nevertheless, I was not prepared to learn of recent work showing that skulls, specifically the brain case (and the enclosed brain) get seasonal changes too. Even though these bones are well-ossified and hard, with good, firm sutures between the various cranial bones, they too can be reversibly remodeled on a seasonal basis. These studies were done with the common red-toothed shrew of Europe and with two species of weasel (one called stoat in Europe and ermine or short-tailed weasel in North America, and one called weasel in Europe but least weasel here). Although all three species show the seasonal changes, there are interesting differences among them and between male and female in one species.

All three species showed a change in skull shape as the animals matured, from a more rounded and relatively large juvenile skull in their first summer–when they disperse and establish their individual territories–to a more flattened, relatively smaller adult form in their first winter. Then, each species showed a temporary, reversible increase in braincase size in the second spring and summer, with the acquisition of an increased behavioral repertoire involving mating and territoriality. There is then a subsequent winter decrease, accompanied by thinner skull bones—with hints that there were greater seasonal changes in geographic areas with more severe winters. At least in the shrews, there is no evidence of increased numbers of neurons, but in all three species different parts of the brain are involved in the increase and in the decrease. Precisely how this is achieved is not clear.

The researchers suggest that this skull remodeling is a way to conserve energy for these small mammals that have extremely high metabolic rates and high levels of activity all year long. Their slim body design, with short legs, is not conducive to putting on much fat and hibernation is not feasible.

However, while both male and female shrews exhibited approximately the same pattern, the weasels differed from each other. In the least weasel, after the winter decrease in braincase size, only males showed the spring-summer regrowth. There was no regrowth in the skulls of females. By contrast, in the ermine/stoat, both sexes exhibited a summer increase after a winter decrease.

The researchers related the variation in gender differences to the life histories of the respective species and genders. Both male and females shrews defend territories vigorously requiring much activity and perhaps recognition of neighboring individuals. Least weasels are very short-lived, seldom living more than a year or two, and females often invest resources in reproduction even in their first summer. They may not have enough resources to invest also in skull regrowth and little chance to gain by it, given the short life expectancy. Males, on the other hand, are busy with territorial defense, for which a larger appearance is often effective. Stoats/ermine are longer-lived and females don’t reproduce so quickly in the life history. Resource expenditure in reproduction is more spread out in time, and investment in skull regrowth may be more possible and more likely to lead to a possibility of future reproduction.

Bearings on bears

the advantages and disadvantages of being a big bruin

In the world of North American bears, there are considerable advantages to being big. The biggest males generally mate with more females than medium size or small males do. For example, one study found that three large male black bears encountered more than twice the number of females in the breeding season as several smaller males did, and a much higher proportion of these encounters were with receptive females. As a result, the three big males fathered ninety-one percent of the cubs. Being big led to winning more face-offs and fights with other males and perhaps also to being favored by females. Big males are also able to dominate smaller bears and gain almost exclusive access to important food resources in many situations.

Being big also has pay-offs for females. They too are more likely to win threatening encounters with other bears (when they can’t be avoided). Moreover, big females are likely to produce more cubs than smaller females. Research has shown that fat females produce more surviving cubs than less-fat females, because they have more energy for producing milk to feed their new cubs, born during hibernation. Although both small and large females can be fat, large females have better access to food resources, because they can dominate smaller bears, and they can carry more fat on their large frames.

Photo by Jos Bakker

Here in Southeast, researchers suggest that access to spawning runs of salmon in late summer and fall allows bears to become both bigger and fatter than bears that don’t have access to salmon. Eating meat, especially salmon, seems to allow bears to grow extremely big. However, some bears in Southeast don’t come to the salmon runs, staying instead in the alpine zone. Apparently they give a higher priority to avoiding the risks of encountering dominant bears that rule the salmon streams, and they probably have lower reproductive success. Spawning runs of other fishes offer foraging advantages to hungry bears too: It would be interesting to learn if the grizzly bears feeding on the spawning runs of broad whitefish in the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories get bigger and fatter than those without access to the runs.

Being big has its advantages, certainly, but there is also a ‘down side’ to large size. Big bears can’t run as fast as smaller ones, and researchers suggest that they are more likely to hunt by ambushing prey rather than pursuing it. Big bears can climb trees but they are much less agile in doing so than smaller bears. Trees offer refuge, especially to smaller bears, from other, larger bears. Tree climbing also gives agile bears access to food in some cases. For example, in spring black bears forage on cottonwood flowering catkins and young seed pods; near the Visitor Center they sometimes strip the trees of most of their branches in order to reach the catkins and pods. A really big black bear would have trouble clambering up many of the middle-sized cottonwoods up by the Visitor Center to gather the edible catkins, but the smaller bears do so with apparent ease. Later, in the summer, both black and brown bears in Southeast climb wild crabapple trees to get the fruit; outside of Southeast, bears climb (or did so before they were exterminated in many states) many kinds of trees to reach the fruit.

Big body size also makes it difficult to gain weight in preparation for hibernation by eating vegetation alone. Putting on fat is necessary for survival during the long months of hibernation and for females to produce milk to feed their cubs. Although our bears commonly eat a lot of green plant food, they can’t digest plant fibers. So apparently big bears just can’t get enough nutritious plant material to put on the necessary weight. Very big bears probably also have difficulty gaining weight on a diet of berries, except perhaps in really good ‘berry years.’ It could be argued that the bigger the bear, the more meat it needs to eat; and conversely, meat eating is necessary to achieve large size in the first place.

Being big has another major disadvantage: Hunters often take pride in killing large animals, be they sheep or goats or bears. So trophy hunting imposes a risk on large body size. The consequences of removing large, dominant individuals from a population are well understood (but commonly ignored): loss of the large individuals upsets to social organization and probably increases the risk of infanticide by previously subordinate male bears (killing cubs tends to bring the female back into breeding readiness). More mating by smaller bears eventually results in a population of smaller bears, because the genes for large size become less common in the population.