Quirks & Quarks

Temperatures Make Toxins Tougher to Tolerate

Wild animals often consume toxic plants, and can tolerate those toxins until the temperature goes up.

Animals metabolize plant toxins with more difficulty when the heat is on

Desert Woodrat (Kevin Kohl, University of Utah)
Warmer temperatures make metabolizing plant toxins more difficult for wild rodents, which could be a challenge for them as climate change increases average temperatures. Patrice Kurnath, a PhD candidate in Biology at the University of Utah has been studying the desert wood-rat, a small rodent that eats a diet that includes the creosote bush, which produces a range of nasty toxins.

In a lab experiment, the wood-rat easily tolerates a diet including creosote toxins at lower temperatures; but at only slightly elevated temperatures of 29° Celsius, the animals would refuse to eat the same diet, to the point of rapid and potentially dangerous weight loss. The difficulty probably lies in the metabolic load of processing toxins in the liver, which would cause animals to overheat at higher temperatures.

Since many wild and domestic species eat plants with defensive toxins, this could be a challenge for them in a warming world.

Related Links

- Paper in Royal Society Proceeding B
- University of Utah release
Salt Lake Tribune article


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