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13.12: Limits on Animal Size and Shape

  • Page ID
    46240
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    Learning Objectives
    • Describe limits on animal size and shape

    Animals vary in form and function. From a sponge to a worm to a goat, an organism has a distinct body plan that limits its size and shape. Animals’ bodies are also designed to interact with their environments, whether in the deep sea, a rainforest canopy, or the desert. Therefore, a large amount of information about the structure of an organism’s body (anatomy) and the function of its cells, tissues and organs (physiology) can be learned by studying that organism’s environment.

    Bilateral symmetry is found in both land-based and aquatic animals; it enables a high level of mobility. Animals with bilateral symmetry that live in water tend to have a fusiform shape: this is a tubular shaped body that is tapered at both ends. This shape decreases the drag on the body as it moves through water and allows the animal to swim at high speeds. Table 1 lists the maximum speed of various animals. Certain types of sharks can swim at fifty kilometers an hour and some dolphins at 32 to 40 kilometers per hour. Land animals frequently travel faster, although the tortoise and snail are significantly slower than cheetahs. Another difference in the adaptations of aquatic and land-dwelling organisms is that aquatic organisms are constrained in shape by the forces of drag in the water since water has higher viscosity than air. On the other hand, land-dwelling organisms are constrained mainly by gravity, and drag is relatively unimportant. For example, most adaptations in birds are for gravity not for drag.

    Table 1. Maximum Speed of Assorted Land Marine Animals
    Animal Speed (kmh) Speed (mph)
    Cheetah 113 70
    Quarter horse 77 48
    Fox 68 42
    Shortfin mako shark 50 31
    Domestic house cat 48 30
    Human 45 28
    Dolphin 32–40 20–25
    Mouse 13 8
    Snail 0.05 0.03

    Most animals have an exoskeleton, including insects, spiders, scorpions, horseshoe crabs, centipedes, and crustaceans. Scientists estimate that, of insects alone, there are over 30 million species on our planet. The exoskeleton is a hard covering or shell that provides benefits to the animal, such as protection against damage from predators and from water loss (for land animals); it also provides for the attachments of muscles.

    As the tough and resistant outer cover of an arthropod, the exoskeleton may be constructed of a tough polymer such as chitin and is often biomineralized with materials such as calcium carbonate. This is fused to the animal’s epidermis. Ingrowths of the exoskeleton, called apodemes, function as attachment sites for muscles, similar to tendons in more advanced animals (Figure 1).

    Illustration shows a crab claw with a small, upper portion that pivots relative to a large, lower portion. The apodemes are located on the large portion, above and below the pivot point.
    Figure 1. Apodemes are ingrowths on arthropod exoskeletons to which muscles attach. The apodemes on this crab leg are located above and below the fulcrum of the claw. Contraction of muscles attached to the apodemes pulls the claw closed.

    In order to grow, the animal must first synthesize a new exoskeleton underneath the old one and then shed or molt the original covering. This limits the animal’s ability to grow continually, and may limit the individual’s ability to mature if molting does not occur at the proper time. The thickness of the exoskeleton must be increased significantly to accommodate any increase in weight. It is estimated that a doubling of body size increases body weight by a factor of eight. The increasing thickness of the chitin necessary to support this weight limits most animals with an exoskeleton to a relatively small size. The same principles apply to endoskeletons, but they are more efficient because muscles are attached on the outside, making it easier to compensate for increased mass.

    An animal with an endoskeleton has its size determined by the amount of skeletal system it needs in order to support the other tissues and the amount of muscle it needs for movement. As the body size increases, both bone and muscle mass increase. The speed achievable by the animal is a balance between its overall size and the bone and muscle that provide support and movement.

    Limiting Effects of Diffusion on Size and Development

    The exchange of nutrients and wastes between a cell and its watery environment occurs through the process of diffusion. All living cells are bathed in liquid, whether they are in a single-celled organism or a multicellular one. Diffusion is effective over a specific distance and limits the size that an individual cell can attain. If a cell is a single-celled microorganism, such as an amoeba, it can satisfy all of its nutrient and waste needs through diffusion. If the cell is too large, then diffusion is ineffective and the center of the cell does not receive adequate nutrients nor is it able to effectively dispel its waste.

    An important concept in understanding how efficient diffusion is as a means of transport is the surface to volume ratio. Recall that any three-dimensional object has a surface area and volume; the ratio of these two quantities is the surface-to-volume ratio. Consider a cell shaped like a perfect sphere: it has a surface area of 4πr2, and a volume of (4/3)πr3. The surface-to-volume ratio of a sphere is 3/r; as the cell gets bigger, its surface to volume ratio decreases, making diffusion less efficient. The larger the size of the sphere, or animal, the less surface area for diffusion it possesses.

    The solution to producing larger organisms is for them to become multicellular. Specialization occurs in complex organisms, allowing cells to become more efficient at doing fewer tasks. For example, circulatory systems bring nutrients and remove waste, while respiratory systems provide oxygen for the cells and remove carbon dioxide from them. Other organ systems have developed further specialization of cells and tissues and efficiently control body functions. Moreover, surface-to-volume ratio applies to other areas of animal development, such as the relationship between muscle mass and cross-sectional surface area in supporting skeletons, and in the relationship between muscle mass and the generation of dissipation of heat.

    Visit this interactive site to see an entire animal (a zebrafish embryo) at the cellular and sub-cellular level. Use the zoom and navigation functions for a virtual nanoscopy exploration.

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