Muscle plasticity of Inuit sled dogs in Greenland

Gerth N. ; Sum S. ; Jackson S. ; Starck J.M. (2009)


This study examined flexible adjustments of skeletal muscle size, fiber structure, and capillarization in Inuit sled dogs responding to seasonal changes in temperature, exercise and food supply. Inuit dogs pull sleds in winter and are fed regularly throughout this working season. In summer, they remain chained to rocks without exercise, receiving food intermittently and often fasting for several days. We studied two dog teams in Northern Greenland (Qaanaaq) where dogs are still draught animals vital to Inuit hunters, and one dog team in Western Greenland (Qeqertarsuaq) where this traditional role has been lost. Northern Greenland dogs receive more and higher quality food than those in Western Greenland. We used ultrasonography for repeated muscle size measurements on the same individuals, and transmission electron microscopy on micro-biopsies for summer-winter comparisons of muscle histology, also within individuals. At both study sites, dogs' muscles were significantly thinner in summer than in winter - atrophy attributable to reduced fiber diameter. Sarcomeres from West Greenland dogs showed serious myofilament depletion and expansion of the sarcoplasmatic space between myofibrils during summer. At both study sites, summer samples showed fewer interfibrillar and subsarcolemmal mitochondria, and fewer lipid droplets between myofibrils, than did winter samples. In summer, capillary density was higher and inter-capillary distance smaller than in winter, but the capillaryto-fiber-ratio and number of capillaries associated with single myofibers were constant. Increased capillary density was probably a by-product of differential tissue responses to condition changes rather than a functional adaptation, because thinning of muscle fibers in summer was not accompanied by reduction in the capillary network. Thus, skeletal muscle of Inuit dogs responds flexibly to changes in functional demands. This flexibility is based on differential changes in functional components: mitochondrial numbers, lipid droplet size, and the number of contractile filaments all increase with increasing workload and food supply while the capillary network remains unchanged.

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