The capacities of animals for activity (burst speed, maximal exertion, endurance) are examined in relation to their selective importance in extant populations and the pattern of their evolution in major animal taxa. Activity capacities have been demonstrated to be both heritable and highly variable in natural populations and hence susceptible to natural selection. Some field studies have demonstrated significant positive associations between activity capacities, particularly burst speed, and survivorship; other studies have not. The potential for such selection therefore clearly exists, although it may not operate in all populations. Comparative studies of major taxa have linked endurance capacities to maximal rates of oxygen consumption; speed and exertion are correlated with capacities for anaerobic metabolism, either the catabolism of phosphagens or the production of lactic acid or octopine, depending on taxon. In vertebrates, the primitive metabolic pattern involved the use of aerobic metabolism to support moderate swimming performance, supplemented by bursts of activity fuelled through lactic acid production. Because of much greater locomotor costs, the transition of vertebrates onto land entailed a decrease in endurance, which was greatly expanded again only after the evolution of the higher rates of aerobic metabolism characteristic of the birds and mammals. These greater aerobic capacities may have been selected for thermoregulatory reasons and/or for increased activity capacity itself.

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