Large mammals that live in arid and/or desert environments can cope with seasonal and local variations in rainfall, food and climate1 by moving long distances, often without reliable water or food en route. The capacity of an animal for this long-distance travel is substantially dependent on the rate of energy utilization and thus heat production during locomotion—the cost of transport2,3,4. The terrestrial cost of transport is much higher than for flying (7.5 times) and swimming (20 times)4. Terrestrial migrants are usually large1,2,3 with anatomical specializations for economical locomotion5,6,7,8,9, because the cost of transport reduces with increasing size and limb length5,6,7. Here we used GPS-tracking collars10 with movement and environmental sensors to show that blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus, 220 kg) that live in a hot arid environment in Northern Botswana walked up to 80 km over five days without drinking. They predominantly travelled during the day and locomotion appeared to be unaffected by temperature and humidity, although some behavioural thermoregulation was apparent. We measured power and efficiency of work production (mechanical work and heat production) during cyclic contractions of intact muscle biopsies from the forelimb flexor carpi ulnaris of wildebeest and domestic cows (Bos taurus, 760 kg), a comparable but relatively sedentary ruminant. The energetic costs of isometric contraction (activation and force generation) in wildebeest and cows were similar to published values for smaller mammals. Wildebeest muscle was substantially more efficient (62.6%) than the same muscle from much larger cows (41.8%) and comparable measurements that were obtained from smaller mammals (mouse (34%)11 and rabbit (27%)). We used the direct energetic measurements on intact muscle fibres to model the contribution of high working efficiency of wildebeest muscle to minimizing thermoregulatory challenges during their long migrations under hot arid conditions.
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The authors declare that all relevant processed data supporting the findings of this study are available as Source Data. Further data are available from the corresponding authors upon reasonable request.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
We thank R. Woledge for contributing to early design of experiments; C. Barclay for helping us to fabricate the thermocouple elements; our field assistants, N. Terry and M. Claase; A. R. Wilson for logistical support and editorial contributions; M. Flyman (Department of Wildlife and National Parks) for his support and enthusiasm and J. O’Connor and P. O’Riordan (Dawn Meats, Bedford) for enabling cow muscle collection. Funding was provided by the EPSRC (EP/H013016/1), BBSRC (BB/J018007/1) and ERC (323041). A Botswana Research Permit EWT 8/36/4 was held by A.M.W. and A.M.W. was a registered Botswana veterinarian.
Nature thanks J. E. A. Bertram, R. Hetem and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.