Evolved changes in maternal care in high-altitude native deer mice.
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At high altitude (HA), unremitting low oxygen and persistent cold push small mammals close to their metabolic ceilings, leaving limited scope for aerobically demanding activities. However, HA breeding seasons are relatively short and endemic rodents compensate with larger litters than low altitude (LA) conspecifics. Rodent mothers are the sole source of heat and nutrition for altricial offspring and lactation is energetically costly. Thus, it is unclear how HA females balance energy allocation during the nursing period. We hypothesized that HA female rodents invest heavily in each litter to ensure postnatal survival. We measured maternal energetic output and behaviour in nursing deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) native to LA (400 m a.s.l.) and HA (4350 m a.s.l.) under control (24°C, 760 mmHg) and cold hypoxia conditions, simulating HA (5°C, 430 mmHg). Strikingly, resting metabolic rates of lactating HA and LA females under cold hypoxia were 70-85% of their maximum aerobic capacity. In cold hypoxia, LA mothers increased both nursing time and milk fat content, however their pups were leaner and severely growth restricted at weaning. HA mothers also increased nursing in cold hypoxia but for far less time than LA mothers. Despite receiving less care, HA pups in cold hypoxia only experienced small growth restrictions at weaning and maintained body composition. As adults, HA mice raised in cold hypoxia had increased aerobic capacity compared to controls. These data suggest that HA mothers prioritize their own maintenance costs over investing heavily in their offspring. Pups compensate for this lack of care, likely by reducing their own metabolic costs during development.