The starvation-predation trade-off shapes the strategic use of protein for energy during fasting

Andrew D. Higginson*, John M. McNamara, Alasdair I. Houston

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

14 Citations (Scopus)


The primary function of lipid storage by animals is as an energy source for surviving periods without food. However, muscle and organ protein can be metabolised for energy, and empirical studies have shown that the onset of protein metabolism begins before the exhaustion of lipid reserves. Since protein tissues are important for reasons other than resisting starvation, the adaptive basis for this early onset is unclear. Here, we report the results of a model of the optimal proportion of energy to obtain from protein catabolism during a period without food of unpredictable duration. We assume either that the animal aims only to maximise the duration of survival or that it also has to take account of its future reproductive success given its state when the food supply recommences. In the latter case we find impressive quantitative agreement with observations on lean and obese penguins and rats. Analysis shows that this agreement breaks down if predation risk is insignificant, protein in the form of muscle is ineffective against predation, or there is no benefit to conserving lipid (e.g. for reproduction). This result implies that animals have not evolved to maximise their starvation resistance because doing so would leave them vulnerable when an interruption ends. Our model allows us to make several specific predictions concerning the relationship between the ecological pressures on animals and their starvation survival strategies. (C) 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)208-219
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
Publication statusPublished - 21 Oct 2014


  • Lipids
  • Catabolism
  • Metabolism
  • Famine
  • MASS
  • FAT


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