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B io Factsheet

Number 186

Adaptations to Extreme Conditions

This topic covers a lot of fascinating Biology. But, just in terms of the exam, there are two good reasons for studying this Factsheet: 1. It is a typical synoptic essay title, asking you to pull together lots of animal and plant topics 2. By focussing on adaptations, you also reinforce your knowledge of normal physiology. The introduction to your essay should focus on the key terms in the title in this case, adaptation and extreme. An adaptation is a response to conditions through structural, physiological or behavioural changes. Remember, we need to cover both plants and animals.

The key Biological facts to remember are:

the active uptake of ions from the ascending loop lowers the water potential of the interstitial fluid this draws water out of the descending limb by osmosis the longer the loop, the more water can be removed from it. Thus the beaver, that has no problems with water shortage, has a relatively short Loop of Henle, but the desert - living gerbil has a very long one so that it can produce small volumes of highly concentrated, hypertonic urine (i.e. urine with a very low water potential) NOTE: Do not go into the exam without understanding what goes on in the kidney! If in doubt, re-read Factsheets 1 ( The Kidney: Excretion and Osmoregulation), 150 ( Answering Exam Questions on the Kidney) and 166 ( Answering Exam Questions on Kidney Problems)

What are these extreme conditions?

There is a spectrum, including drought (extreme lack of water), very high or very low temperatures, a lack of oxygen and more moderate extremes such as rocky shores, fast-flowing streams, mineraldeficient soils, soil salinity, high altitude etc. A good way of revising this topic and planning the extended prose (essay) and others is to draw out the main elements in a diagram such as a spider diagram or a table.

The Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys spp)

Animal adaptations to drought

Animals that live in deserts obviously need to conserve water. One way in which they do this is via a structural adaptation in their kidneys. Fig 1. compares the relative length of the Loops of Henle of a beaver, a house mouse and a gerbil that lives in a desert

Fig 1

The kangaroo rats Loop of Henle is much longer than that of other rodents. This allows it to produce hypertonic urine in small volumes. The rats nasal passages are maintained at a lower temperature than their core body temperature. This means exhaled air is cooled as it passes through the nose. Water vapour in the air condenses on the inside of the nose, where it is reabsorbed back into the body. Beaver House mouse The rats only have sweat glands in their feet. This helps to maintain their body temperature above that of the desert air so that less water is lost via evaporative cooling. The rats have synchronized their reproductive cycles to respond to rainfall. Many of their reproductive features, including testis length and weight, sperm production, number of embryos and embryo size fluctuate seasonally and are statistically linked to monthly rainfall. Gerbil

186 Adaptations to Extreme Conditions

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The Kangaroo rats also show behavioural modifications. Their nocturnal lifestyle means that they remain deep underground in a cool burrow with a very high humidity (Fig 2).

Fig 2
Absolute Humidity (mg H2O/l air)

An investigation was carried out into whether kangaroo rats selected seeds to eat on the basis of the seeds moisture content. Seeds were treated with gamma radiation and then stored for one to three days in high humidity containers. The rats were fed a diet of vegetables and rice for 3 days and were then given a choice over a 4 hour period of which seeds to eat. Two trials were conducted, A and B. The results are shown in Fig 3

14 12 10 8 6 4 2 0 19 20 21 22 23 24 1 2 Hour of the day 3 4 5 6 outside burrow inside burrow

Fig 3

Seed intake (g)


The almost saturated air in the burrow reduces water lost through breathing. The rats diet has also been adapted to exploit available food sources. Whilst their ancestors, living when water was more readily available, could exploit standing water and succulent vegetation, the rats now exist almost solely on carbohydrate - rich dry seeds and grains. This maximizes metabolic water production (Table 1) and minimizes production of nitrogenous wastes which need water to be eliminated. When water is particularly scarce, the rats select grains and seeds high in carbohydrates and low in proteins.

Number of days exposed to humid air

(a) Suggest why the seeds were treated with gamma radiation. (2) (b) Comment on the results (3) (c) Suggest why kangaroo rats horde caches of seeds deep underground in their burrows even when food supplies are plentiful(1)

(a) Kill fungi/microorganisms; That may have influenced taste/appearance/composition of the seeds; (b) Seed selection positively correlated with length of exposure/ seed moisture content; Correct reference to data eg significant difference between no exposure and 1 day; Results from trial A and B may also be significant eg exposure for 3 days; Selection likely to be via olfactory cue; Survival advantage; (c) Increase the moisture content of the seeds;

Table 1
Dietary component Free Water Proteins Carbohydrates Maximum Water Obtainable (% mass) 100 41.3 55.4

The cheek pouches of the Kangaroo rats allow them to store these grains more effectively. Finally, the rats have adapted highly-efficient two-footed jumping, allowing them to cover large distances quickly whilst foraging.

New species of camel?

In 2001, scientists claimed to have discovered a new species of camel in Asia. The new species had slightly different DNA from the domesticated Bactrian camel and, it was claimed, was able to survive by drinking salty water. A DNA mutation a random change in the base or nucleotide sequence - had resulted in changes to the camels physiology that allowed them to tolerate water which would have caused dehydration and death in its domesticated cousins. (a) Suggest physiological adaptations that might have allowed camels to survive by drinking only salty water. (4) (b) Explain how genetic variation in the ancestral populations could have led to the emergence of a new species. (4) Note: This is a typical synoptic question. It is asking you to pull bits of knowledge from physiology (the kidney), mutations and speciation. In (a) the word Suggest is telling you that the examiners are prepared to allow different interpretations if the Biology you come out with is vaguely sensible, youll get some marks. So, whatever you do, write something!

186 Adaptations to Extreme Conditions

New species of camel? Answers
(a) salt not absorbed in gut / salt egested in faeces; salt secreting glands; so that the cells have a lower water potential; more salt in urine; kidneys reabsorb less salt / excrete more salt; longer Loop of Henle / collecting duct, for increased water (re)absorption; increased ADH production; increased ability to maintain normal blood viscosity

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(b) natural variation in tolerance to salt between individuals; due to advantageous, DNA / alleles; individuals with advantageous alleles have greater chance of surviving; DNA/ alleles are passed to offspring; change in allele frequency; ref to isolation mechanism;

One obvious way in which animals can escape drought is to migrate. It has been suggested that the huge migration of wildebeest and zebra in the Serengeti National Park, Tanzania, is triggered by excessive salinity, itself a result of the changing balance between rainfall and evaporation. well - developed sclerenchyma or other mechanical tissue that prevents collapse due to wilting water storage cells eg succulents such as Sedum rolled up leaves to reduce the surface area of moist tissue which is exposed to air eg. Marram Grass (Ammophila arenaria)

Plant adaptations to drought

Xerophytic plants are adapted to survive in seasonal or permanent drought conditions. Since the vast majority of the water which plants absorb via their roots is lost as water vapour from the aerial parts of the plant, xerophytes possess xeromorphic features which minimise water loss. Similary, roots and stems may show xeromorphic features. Roots are usually extensive or deep to take advantage of superficial rainfall or to tap deep water reserves. The root cortex is often thin which means that there is only a small distance between soil water and the xylem in the vascular tissue. The vascular tissue often contains well developed xylem which allows rapid transport of water to the aerial parts of the plant. The stems of succulents store water in parenchyma tissue which can be used for transport and metabolism when required

Fig 4. Xeromorphic features

abaxial (outer) epidermis with thick cuticle fibres adaxial epidermis unicellular hair sheath of small fibers hinge cells allow leaf to roll up, shielding stomata from external atmosphere xylem phloem mesophyll cells

Fig 5. Root structure

Epidermis Cambium Collenchyma Cortex Thick cuticle

Xylem Phloem



leaves, these features include: thickened epidermis to reduce cuticular transpiration small surface area thorns, for example in cacti pale, waxy and highly reflective leaves that help to reduce their temperature, hence water loss reduced number and size of stomata or sunken stomata eg privet and oleander, stomata surrounded by hairs eg Erica. Grooves and hairs create a pocket of water vapour which decreases water loss by transpiration Oleander leaf thick cuticle multiple layers of epidermis

Ezam Hint: Dont just list xeromorphic features, tell the examiner how they work

Leaf Abscission
Abscission is the term that describes the dropping of leaves by plants. In part, this is a physiological response to a lack of water. Leaves lose water via the stomata so if water becomes unavailable, leaf abscission helps to ensure that water loss is minimized. Deciduous trees abscise their leaves in Autumn, evergreens lose their leaves all year - round. Leaves break off at a point at the base of the petioles known as the abscission zone. Usually, this zone contains less sclerenchyma, more thin walled cells and few air spaces. Abscission is controlled by plants growth substances such as abscissic acid.

stomata in sunken crypts with hairs to trap moisture

186 Adaptations to Extreme Conditions

Seed dormancy
Seed dormancy allows seeds to survive unfavourable conditions. Several factors are involved in the breaking of dormancy - water, temperature and light, for example. The most common trigger for breaking dormancy is water. When the seed coat absorbs water, it expands and bursts open. The seeds of many desert plants contain germination inhibitors that must be leached out before germination is triggered. This prevents the plant from germinating at an inappropriate time following a brief shower, for example.

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Cells also become hardened and such cells survive higher temperatures longer and return to normal cell function faster. Antarctic and Atlantic fish such as the Flounder possess anti-freeze glycoproteins and polypeptides that prevent their serum freezing in icy waters. As might be expected, the antifreeze polypeptides (AFPs) are produced in much greater quantities in Winter than in Summer. Other species can chemically alter the lipid composition of their cell membranes to maintain their fluidity. Surprisingly, it does not seem to be the actual temperature itself that determines the extreme temperature at which an organism can survive. At both high and low extreme temperatures it is the availability of oxygen which limits survival ability. For example the spider crab, Maja squinado (Fig 6),

Crassulacean Acid Photosynthesis

1. Carbon dioxide is fixed by phosphoenol pyruvate carboxylase (PEPC) into malic acid (MA). 2. MA is stored overnight in vacuoles of large, succulent photosynthetic cells. 3. In the morning when temperature increases and relative humidity decreases, the stomata close to reduce transpiration losses. 4. MA is decarboxylated i.e. CO2 is removed. 5. CO 2 is then fixed by ribulose bisphosphate carboxylase (RuBC) in the conventional Calvin cycle.

Fig 6. Spider Crab

Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM)

CAM plants use water more efficiently than either C3 or C4 plants. CAM differs from C4 plant photosynthesis because all of the above reactions occur in the same cell whereas in C4 plants, the reactions of PEPC and RuBC occur in different cells. CAM is much more widespread than C4 photosynthesis but most CAM plants are succulents.

Adaptations to extreme temperatures

Both plants and animals show adaptations to temperature extremes. Chill coma in the Common Woodlouse (Porcellio laevis) When exposed to very cold temperatures this woodlouse appears to go into a coma. The woodlouse loses the ability to right itself and, as with other ectotherms, its metabolism slows greatly. The speed with which the woodlouse can recover from this chill coma differs according to the average minimum temperature to which the woodlouse is exposed. In other words, woodlice that live at higher, colder latitudes can recover from chill coma fastest. 330
Recovery time (s)

is only able to maintain high oxygen levels within a restricted temperature range; above or below that, and oxygen partial pressure fall to extremely low levels Fig 7) and concentrations of lactate and succinate reach toxic levels.

Fig 7. Effect of temperature in oxygen levels

Haemolymph PO2 (mm Hg)

120 100 80 60 40 20 0 0 5 10 15 20 Temperature 25 30 35 40

Antofagasta La Serena

300 270 240

Hydrothermal vent organisms

San Antoio Santiago The Pompeii worm (Alvinella pompejana) lives in tubes on active sulphide chimney walls of the vents on the East Pacific Rise. Temperatures range from 25oC 45oC and there are extremely high sulphide levels which would be instantly toxic to non-adapted organisms. The worms oxidise the suphides and ingested heavy metals are trapped in crystals and become bound to proteins where they can exert no biological effect. The worms are also anatomically and physiologically adapted to very low oxygen levels.

210 180 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 Annual mean minimum temperature (oC)

Some organisms can tolerate extremely high temperatures. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures may result in certain genes being switched on. These genes cause the formation of heat-shock proteins in cells. These proteins can carry on functioning unharmed by the high temperatures.

Acknowledgements: This Factsheet was researched and written by Kevin Byrne. Curriculum Press, Bank House, 105 King Street, Wellington, Shropshire, TF1 1NU. Bio Factsheets may be copied free of charge by teaching staff or students, provided that their school is a registered subscriber. No part of these Factsheets may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any other form or by any other means, without the prior permission of the publisher. ISSN 1351-5136