When you’re used to living at low to moderate elevations, it can be challenging to visit high-altitude places. The declining partial pressure of oxygen at high altitude makes it difficult for your body to deliver the same amount of oxygen to tissues. This is why National Football League players often struggle to play in Denver (see playoffs next week!). However, organisms that live at high elevations, including humans, have evolved a number of ways to deal with living in such oxygen-challenged environments. We know less about whether the same aspects of the cardiovascular change in different organisms, even among relatively closely related species. Well, what better group of organisms to address such questions than anoles!
Virtually nobody reading this blog will be unfamiliar with the story of the Greater Antillean ecomorphs, and they are great to use for questions related to elevation and adaptations to deal with it. They live along steep elevational gradients within an island, and such gradients exist across islands. Although, the Caribbean anoles have been the subject of numerous studies that have shown convergent evolution in body size and shape, as well as locomotor performance and endocrine function, we know much less about how they deal with elevational challenges at the cardiovascular level.
Miguel Webber, an undergraduate in the laboratory of Michele Johnson at Trinity University, along with Brittney Ivanov, studied several blood physiology traits in 13 species across five ecomorphs in the Dominican Republic to determine whether elevation has been an important driving force in the evolution of oxygen delivery mechanisms. Although looking at an impressive number of traits that included hematocrit (the proportion of red blood cells), hemoglobin concentration, and red blood cell size, Miguel only found hemoglobin concentration to be positively related with elevation when looking across species.
One of the more interesting findings was that none of the blood physiology variables that Miguel measured were ecomorph specific. However, this makes sense because members of an ecomorph live across wide geographic areas and across elevational gradients. Physiological studies such as Miguel’s are offering interesting insights into how anoles have adapted to their environments and emphasizes that ecomorph membership does not determine everything.