Publication Details

Munn, A. J., Clissold, F., Tarszisz, E., Kimpton, K., Dickman, C. & Hume, I. D. (2009). Hindgut plasticity in wallabies fed hay either unchopped or ground and pelleted: fiber is not the only factor. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, 82 (3), 270-279.


Phenotypic plasticity of the gastrointestinal tract is crucial for optimal food processing and nutrient balance in many vertebrate species. For mammalian herbivores, gut plasticity is typically correlated with the fiber content of forage; however, we show here that other factors such as ingesta particle size may effect profound phenotypic plasticity of the fermentative hind-gut in a medium-sized (10-kg body mass) marsupial herbivore, the red-necked wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus). When dietary fiber contents were comparable, red-necked wallabies that were fed a finely ground, pelleted hay for 60-72 d had hindguts that were some 28% heavier (empty wet mass) than those fed unchopped hay. The hindguts of pellet-fed wallabies contained more wet ingesta, which was also of a finer particle size, than those fed hay, indicating some separation of large- and small-particle fermentation between the foregut and the hindgut, respectively. Such a digestive strategy would benefit animals by allowing fermentation of a range of ingesta particle sizes that are expected for free-ranging animals faced with a spectrum of diet types and qualities. The heavier hindgut of pellet-fed wallabies was correlated with increased concentrations of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) in the fermentative hindgut (cecum and proximal colon) and particularly with increases in the molar proportions of n-butyric acid. The mechanisms facilitating gut plasticity in herbivorous mammals are uncertain, but we suggest that manipulating ingesta particle size rather than dietary fiber could provide a useful tool for evaluating causal explanations. In particular, altering ingesta particle size could help to distinguish possible direct processes (e.g., the favoring of smaller intestinal microbes and production of specific SCFAs) from indirect affects of feed structure (e.g., muscular hypertrophy to compensate for increased intakes and digesta bulk or the fermentation of mucus secreted to promote the flow of viscous, fine-particle material).



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