Comparative physiology

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Comparative physiology is a subdiscipline of physiology that studies and exploits the diversity of functional characteristics of various kinds of organisms. It is closely related to evolutionary physiology and environmental physiology. Many universities offer undergraduate courses that cover comparative aspects of animal physiology.


Originally, physiology focused primarily on human beings, in large part from a desire to improve medical practices. When physiologists first began comparing different species it was sometimes out of basic curiosity to understand how organisms work but also stemmed from a desire to discover basic physiological principles. This use of specific organisms convenient to study specific questions is known as the Krogh Principle. Template:Sect-stub


C. Ladd Prosser, a founder of modern comparative physiology, outlined a broad agenda for comparative physiology in his 1950 edited volume (see summary and discussion in Garland and Carter, 1994):

1. To describe how different kinds of animals meet their needs.

This amounts to cataloging biological diversity, and has recently been criticized as "stamp collecting" with the suggestion that the field should move beyond that initial, exploratory phase.[citation needed]

2. The use of physiological information to reconstruct phylogenetic relationships of organisms.

In principle physiological information could be used just as morphological information or DNA sequence is used to measure evolutionary divergence of organisms. In practice, this has rarely been done, for at least four reasons:
  • physiology doesn't leave many fossil cues,
  • it can't be measured on museum specimens,
  • it is difficult to quantify as compared with morphology or DNA sequences, and
  • physiology is more likely to be adaptive than DNA, and so subject to parallel and convergent evolution, which confuses phylogenetic reconstruction.

3. To elucidate how physiology mediates interactions between organisms and their environments.

This is essentially physiological ecology or ecological physiology.

4. To identify "model systems" for studying particular physiological functions.

Examples of this include using squid giant axons to understand general principles of nerve transmission, using rattlesnake tail shaker muscles for measurement of in vivo changes in metabolites (because the whole animal can be put in an NMR machine), and the use of ectothermic poikilotherms to study effects of temperature on physiology.

5. To use the "kind of animal" as an experimental variable.

"While other branches of physiology use such variables as light, temperature, oxygen tension, and hormone balance, comparative physiology uses, in addition, species or animal type as a variable for each function." [1]


In the United States, research in comparative physiology is funded by both the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation.


A number of scientific societies feature sections on comparative physiology, including:


Knut Schmidt-Nielsen (1915-2007) was a major figure in vertebrate comparative physiology, serving on the faculty at Duke University for many years and training a large number of students obituary. He also authored several books, including an influential text, all known for their accessible writing style.


Some journals that publish articles in comparative animal physiology

Further reading

  • Barrington, E. J. W. 1975. Comparative physiology and the challenge of design. Journal of Experimental Zoology 194:271-286.
  • Clark, A. J. 1927. Comparative physiology of the heart. Cambridge University Press, London.
  • Dantzler, W. H., ed. 1997. Handbook of physiology. Section 13: comparative physiology. Vol. I. Oxford Univ. Press, New York.
  • Dantzler, W. H., ed. 1997. Handbook of physiology. Section 13: comparative physiology. Vol. II. Oxford Univ. Press, New York. viii + 751-1824 pp.
  • Feder, M. E., A. F. Bennett, W. W. Burggren, and R. B. Huey, eds. 1987. New directions in ecological physiology. Cambridge Univ. Press, New York. 364 pp.
  • Garland, T., Jr., and P. A. Carter. 1994. Evolutionary physiology. Annual Review of Physiology 56:579-621. PDF
  • Gibbs, A. G. 1999. Laboratory selection for the comparative physiologist. Journal of Experimental Biology 202:2709-2718.
  • Gilmour, K. M., R. W. Wilson, and K. A. Sloman. 2005. The integration of behaviour into comparative physiology. Physiological and Biochemical Zoology 78:669-678.
  • Gordon, M. S., G. A. Bartholomew, A. D. Grinnell, C. B. Jorgensen, and F. N. White. 1982. Animal physiology: principles and adaptations. 4th ed. MacMillan, New York. 635 pages.
  • Hochachka, P. W., and G. N. Somero. 2002. Biochemical adaptation — mechanism and process in physiological evolution. Oxford University Press. 478 pp.
  • Mangum, C. P., and P. W. Hochachka. 1998. New directions in comparative physiology and biochemistry: mechanisms, adaptations, and evolution. Physiological Zoology 71:471-484.
  • Moyes, C. D., and P. M. Schulte. 2006. Principles of animal physiology. Pearson Benjamin Cummings, San Francisco. 734 pp.
  • Prosser, C. L., ed. 1950. Comparative animal physiology. W. B. Saunders Co., Philadelphia. ix + 888 pp.
  • Randall, D., W. Burggren, and K. French. 2002. Eckert animal physiology: mechanisms and adaptations. 5th ed. W. H. Freeman and Co., New York. 736 pp. + glossary, appendices, index.
  • Ross, D. M. 1981. Illusion and reality in comparative physiology. Canadian Journal of Zoology 59:2151-2158.
  • Schmidt-Nielsen, K. 1972. How animals work. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  • Schmidt-Nielsen, K. 1984. Scaling: why is animal size so important? Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 241 pp.
  • Schmidt-Nielsen, K. 1997. Animal physiology: adaptation and environment. 5th ed. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ix + 607 pp.
  • Schmidt-Nielsen, K. 1998. The camel's nose: memoirs of a curious scientist. 352 pp. The Island Press. Review
  • Somero, G. N. 2000. Unity in Diversity: A perspective on the methods, contributions, and future of comparative physiology. Annuual Review of Physiology 62:927-937.
  • Swallow, J. G., and T. Garland, Jr. 2005. Selection experiments as a tool in evolutionary and comparative physiology: insights into complex traits - An introduction to the symposium. Integrative and Comparative Biology 45:387-390.
  • Willmer, P., G. Stone, and I. Johnston. 2005. Environmental physiology of animals. Second edition. Blackwell Science, Oxford, U.K. xiii + 754 pp.

See also


  1. Prosser (1950, p. 1)