Heart Rate Dynamics in a Marsupial Hibernator

The eastern pygmy possum (Cercartetus nanus) is a small marsupial that can express spontaneous short bouts of torpor, as well as multi-day bouts of deep hibernation. To examine heart rate (fH) control at various stages of torpor in a marsupial hibernator, and to see whether fH variability differs from that of deep placental hibernators, we used radiotelemetry to measure ECG and body temperature (Tb) while measuring the rate of O2 consumption and ventilation. fH and O2 consumption rate during euthermia were at a minimum (321±34 beats min−1, 0.705±0.048 ml O2 g−1 h−1) at an ambient temperature (Ta) of 31°C. fH had an inverse linear relationship with Ta to a maximum of 630±19 beats min−1 at a Ta of 20°C. During entry into torpor at a Ta of 20°C, fH slowed primarily as a result of episodic periods of cardiac activity where electrical activity of the heart occurred in groups of 3 or 4 heart beats. When Tb was stable at 24°C in these torpor bouts, the episodic nature of fH had disappeared (i.e. no asystoles) with a rate of 34±3 beats min−1. For multi-day bouts of deep torpor, Ta was lowered to 6.6±0.8°C. During these deep bouts of torpor, Tb reached a minimum of 8.0±1.0°C, with a minimum fH of 8 beats min−1 and a minimum O2 consumption rate of 0.029±0.07 ml O2 g−1 h−1. Shivering bouts occurred in deep torpor about every 8 min, during which ventilation occurred, and fH was elevated to 40 beats min−1. The duration of the QRS complex increased from 12 ms during euthermia to 69 ms at a Tb of 8°C. These findings demonstrate the dynamic functioning range of fH to be about 600 beats min−1 (∼80-fold), one of the largest known ranges in mammals. Our study shows that despite a separation of ∼160 million years, the control and function of the cardiac system seems indistinguishable in marsupial and placental hibernating mammals.

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