DOI: 10.1242/jeb.246308 ISSN: 0022-0949

Biological timekeeping in polar environments: lessons from terrestrial vertebrates

David G. Hazlerigg, Daniel Appenroth, Barbara M. Tomotani, Alexander C. West, Shona H. Wood
  • Insect Science
  • Molecular Biology
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Physiology
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics


The polar regions receive less solar energy than anywhere else on Earth, with the greatest year-round variation in daily light exposure; this produces highly seasonal environments, with short summers and long, cold winters. Polar environments are also characterised by a reduced daily amplitude of solar illumination. This is obvious around the solstices, when the Sun remains continuously above (polar ‘day’) or below (polar ‘night’) the horizon. Even at the solstices, however, light levels and spectral composition vary on a diel basis. These features raise interesting questions about polar biological timekeeping from the perspectives of function and causal mechanism. Functionally, to what extent are evolutionary drivers for circadian timekeeping maintained in polar environments, and how does this depend on physiology and life history? Mechanistically, how does polar solar illumination affect core daily or seasonal timekeeping and light entrainment? In birds and mammals, answers to these questions diverge widely between species, depending on physiology and bioenergetic constraints. In the high Arctic, photic cues can maintain circadian synchrony in some species, even in the polar summer. Under these conditions, timer systems may be refined to exploit polar cues. In other instances, temporal organisation may cease to be dominated by the circadian clock. Although the drive for seasonal synchronisation is strong in polar species, reliance on innate long-term (circannual) timer mechanisms varies. This variation reflects differing year-round access to photic cues. Polar chronobiology is a productive area for exploring the adaptive evolution of daily and seasonal timekeeping, with many outstanding areas for further investigation.

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