Of mice and men, making a living in rarefied air

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High-elevation populations of deer mice have evolved “stickier” hemoglobin to cope with the thin atmosphere. (Animal Diversity Web)

ResearchBlogging.orgIt’s easy to walk through the woods and fields of North America and never spot Peromyscus maniculatus, the deer mouse, but you’ve probably heard them scampering off through the leaf litter or under cover of tall grass. They’re exceptionally widespread little rodents, found in forest undergrowth and fields from central Mexico all the way north to the Arctic treeline. In all this range, they look about the same: small and brown, with white underparts and big, sensitive ears.

That apparent sameness is deceptive, however.

A big, varied range presents lots of different environmental conditions to which a widespread species must adapt. And when that big, varied range includes the Rocky Mountains, one of those environmental conditions is as basic as the air itself. At high altitudes, atmospheric pressure is lower, which means lower partial pressure of oxygen, the gas that makes life as we know it work.

The fundamental problem at high altitude is to pull more oxygen from thinner air. Natural selection is good at solving problems, and it has multiple options for adapting a mammal to thinner air at high altitudes, to the extent that these traits are heritable. Selection could favor individuals who more readily respond to thin air by breathing faster and deeper, pulling in more air to make up for its lower oxygen content. Or selection could favor individuals who produce more red blood cells, so that a given volume of blood pumped through their lungs picks up more oxygen. Or, at the most basic level, selection could favor individuals whose individual red blood cells are better at picking up oxygen, via a new form of hemoglobin, the oxygen-binding molecule that packs every red blood cell.

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