Torpor, the controlled depression of virtually all bodily function during scarce periods, was verified in primates under free-ranging conditions less than two decades ago. The large variety of different torpor patterns found both within and among closely related species is particularly remarkable. To help unravel the cause of these variable patterns, our review investigates primate torpor use within an evolutionary framework. First, we provide an overview of heterothermic primate species, focusing on the Malagasy lemurs, and discuss their use of daily torpor or hibernation in relation to habitat type and climatic conditions. Second, we investigate environmental characteristics that may have been involved in shaping the high variability of torpor expression found in lemurs today. Third, we examine potential triggers for torpor use in lemurs. We propose the “torpor refugia hypothesis” to illustrate how disparate primate torpor patterns possibly evolved in response to environmental cues during glacial periods, when animals were restricted to different refuge habitats along riverine corridors. For example, individuals enduring harsher conditions at higher altitudes likely developed seasonal hibernation, whereas those inhabiting lower elevation river catchments might have coped with unfavorable conditions by employing daily torpor. The ultimate stimuli triggering torpor use today likely differ between the different habitats of Madagascar. The broad diversity of torpor patterns in lemurs among closely related species, both within the same and in distinctly different habitat types, provides an ideal base for research into the stimuli for torpor use in endotherms in general. Our hypothesis highlights the importance of considering the environmental conditions under which ecosystems and species evolved when trying to explain physiological adaptations seen today.
No conflicts of interest, financial or otherwise, are declared by the author(s).
- ©2016 Int. Union Physiol. Sci./Am. Physiol. Soc.