Physiological convergence amongst ant-eating and termite-eating mammals

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Abstract

Ant- and termite-eating are among the few food habits common to monotremes, marsupials, and eutherians. Data are reported on the rate of metabolism and temperature regulation of 14 species of mammals having these food habits, including two monotremes, one marsupial and 11 eutherians. Small mammals with these habits have comparatively high body temperatures and high basal rates of metabolism, but ant- and termite-eaters that weigh more than 1 kg generally have low body temperatures and low basal rates of metabolism. The higher basal rates in small species ensure effective temperature regulation. Low body temperatures in large species principally result from low rates of metabolism. Rates of metabolism are low in these mammals because they use a food that has a limited availability and a low energy density, the density being further decreased in large species by the ingestion of non-nutritive material during feeding. Burrowing habits in some large species also contribute to low rates of metabolism. The combination of body size, food habits, and presence or absence of burrowing behaviour can account for all but about 6% of the range in basal rate in ant- and termite-eaters. Ants and termites, because of their locally clumped distributions, permit a larger mass in terrestrial predators than do other invertebrate prey. The reason why so many “primitive” mammals feed on ants and termites is that, once evolved, mammals with these habits are nearly impossible to displace ecologically, because much of ecological replacement is associated with high rates of reproduction, which are themselves correlated with high rates of metabolism in eutherians. Consequently, the ecological replacement of ant- and termite-eaters is inhibited, because this food habit does not permit high rates of metabolism, except at small masses.

Ancillary