Gut check : exploring gastrointestinal morphology as a continuous functional trait in Appalachian small mammal communities

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Olivia Scout Chapman (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Bryan McLean

Abstract: Functional traits are phenotypic characteristics that contribute to fitness of species in dynamic and changing environments. In mammals, both categorical and continuous (e.g., quantitative) functional traits have been extensively utilized as proxies for diet, locomotion, and other aspects of species ecology, but there has been less focus on measurements of soft tissues. This is particularly true for the digestive system, which varies in size and complexity across Class Mammalia and plays a major role in the energetics of species. The overarching goal of my research was to guide more effective utilization of gastrointestinal (GI) morphology as a functional trait in small mammals. I therefore explored GI variation in relation to environment at two levels of biological organization. First, I examined how GI tracts (lengths and masses of four GI sections) varied within a population of deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) over the course of an entire year (2021) in the Southern Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, USA. My objective was to demonstrate how seasonality, dietary quality, and reproductive activity impact GI morphological variation, providing insight into the plasticity and potential function of this soft tissue trait. Second, I applied this same set of traits to small mammal communities throughout the Appalachians, specifically assessing the effectiveness of GI morphology in distinguishing dietary groups as well as in driving community-level trait change across a major latitudinal and seasonality gradient. I also compared GI traits to established craniodental traits for both purposes. Overall, my work provides substantial new soft tissue trait data at both the intraspecific and interspecific levels and paves the way for more expansive use of GI traits in future studies to understand community assembly, individual and population health, and response to environmental change at population and community levels.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2022
Functional traits, Gastrointestinal, Morphology, Small mammal
Mammals $x Gastrointestinal system
Mammals $x Morphology
Mammal communities $z Appalachian Region

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