Papers in the Biological Sciences


Date of this Version



The Journal of Experimental Biology 216, 4264-4271


Copyright © 2013. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd. Used by permission.


Semi-fossorial ground squirrels face challenges to respiratory gas transport associated with the chronic hypoxia and hypercapnia of underground burrows, and such challenges are compounded in species that are native to high altitude. During hibernation, such species must also contend with vicissitudes of blood gas concentrations and plasma pH caused by episodic breathing. Here, we report an analysis of hemoglobin (Hb) function in six species of marmotine ground squirrels with different altitudinal distributions. Regardless of their native altitude, all species have high Hb–O2 affinities, mainly due to suppressed sensitivities to allosteric effectors [2,3-diphosphoglycerate (DPG) and chloride ions]. This suppressed anion sensitivity is surprising given that all canonical anion-binding sites are conserved. Two sciurid species, the golden-mantled and thirteen-lined ground squirrel, have Hb–O2 affinities that are characterized by high pH sensitivity and low thermal sensitivity relative to the Hbs of humans and other mammals. The pronounced Bohr effect is surprising in light of highly unusual amino acid substitutions at the C-termini that are known to abolish the Bohr effect in human HbA. Taken together, the high O2 affinity of sciurid Hbs suggests an enhanced capacity for pulmonary O2 loading under hypoxic and hypercapnic conditions, while the large Bohr effect should help to ensure efficient O2 unloading in tissue capillaries. In spite of the relatively low thermal sensitivities of the sciurid Hbs, our results indicate that the effect of hypothermia on Hb oxygenation is the main factor contributing to the increased blood–O2 affinity in hibernating ground squirrels.