Mammalian Diurnality: Some Facts and Gaps
AbstractA major factor contributing to the evolution of mammals was their ability to be active during the night, a niche previously underused by terrestrial vertebrates. Diurnality subsequently reemerged multiple times in a variety of independent lineages. This paper reviews some recent data on circadian mechanisms in diurnal mammals and considers general themes that appear to be emerging from this work. Careful examination of behavioral studies suggests that although subtle differences may exist, the fundamental functions of the circadian system are the same, as seems to be the case with respect to the molecular mechanisms of the clock. This suggests that responses to signals originating in the clock must be different, either within the SCN or at its targets or downstream from them. Some features of the SCN vary from species to species, but none of these has been clearly associated with diurnality. The region immediately dorsal to the SCN, which receives substantial input from it, exhibits dramatically different rhythms in nocturnal lab rats and diurnal grass rats. This raises the possibility that it functions as a relay that transforms the signal emitted by the SCN and transmits different patterns to downstream targets in nocturnal and diurnal animals. Other direct targets of the SCN include neurons containing orexin and those containing gonadotropin-releasing hormone, and both of these populations of cells exhibit patterns of rhythmicity that are inverted in at least one diurnal compared to one nocturnal species. The patterns that emerge from the data on diurnality are discussed in terms of the implications they have for the evolution and neural substrates of a day-active way of life.