Measuring metabolic rate in the field: the pros and cons of the doubly labelled water and heart rate methods


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  • 1Measuring the metabolic rate of animals in the field (FMR) is central to the work of ecologists in many disciplines. In this article we discuss the pros and cons of the two most commonly used methods for measuring FMR.
  • 2Both methods are constantly under development, but at the present time can only accurately be used to estimate the mean rate of energy expenditure of groups of animals. The doubly labelled water method (DLW) uses stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen to trace the flow of water and carbon dioxide through the body over time. From these data, it is possible to derive a single estimate of the rate of oxygen consumption (inline image) for the duration of the experiment. The duration of the experiment will depend on the rate of flow of isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen through the body, which in turn depends on the animal's size, ranging from 24 h for small vertebrates to up to 28 days in Humans.
  • 3This technique has been used widely, partly as a result of its relative simplicity and potential low cost, though there is some uncertainty over the determination of the standard error of the estimate of mean inline image.
  • 4The heart rate (fH) method depends on the physiological relationship between heart rate and inline image.
  • 5If these two quantities are calibrated against each other under controlled conditions, fH can then be measured in free-ranging animals and used to estimate inline image.
  • 6The latest generation of small implantable data loggers means that it is possible to measure fH for over a year on a very fine temporal scale, though the current size of the data loggers limits the size of experimental animals to around 1 kg. However, externally mounted radio-transmitters are now sufficiently small to be used with animals of less than 40 g body mass. This technique is gaining in popularity owing to its high accuracy and versatility, though the logistic constraint of performing calibrations can make its use a relatively extended process.