Organisms use circadian rhythms to anticipate and exploit daily environmental oscillations. While circadian rhythms are of clear importance for inhabitants of tropic and temperate latitudes, its role for permanent residents of the polar regions is less well understood. The high Arctic Svalbard ptarmigan shows behavioral rhythmicity in presence of light-dark cycles but is arrhythmic during the polar day and polar night. This has been suggested to be an adaptation to the unique light environment of the Arctic. In this study, we examined regulatory aspects of the circadian control system in the Svalbard ptarmigan by recording core body temperature (Tb) alongside locomotor activity in captive birds under different photoperiods. We show that Tb and activity are rhythmic with a 24-h period under short (SP; L:D 6:18) and long photoperiod (LP; L:D 16:8). Under constant light and constant darkness, rhythmicity in Tb attenuates and activity shows signs of ultradian rhythmicity. Birds under SP also showed a rise in Tb preceding the light-on signal and any rise in activity, which proves that the light-on signal can be anticipated, most likely by a circadian system.
The high Arctic archipelago of Svalbard (74°–81° north) experiences extended periods of uninterrupted daylight in summer and uninterrupted night in winter, apparently relaxing the major driver for the evolution of circadian rhythmicity. Svalbard ptarmigan (Lagopus muta hyperborea) is the only year-round resident terrestrial bird species endemic to the high Arctic and is remarkably adapted to the extreme annual variation in environmental conditions. Here, we demonstrate that, although circadian control of behavior disappears rapidly upon transfer to constant light conditions, consistent with the loss of daily activity patterns observed during the polar summer and polar night, Svalbard ptarmigans nonetheless employ a circadian-based mechanism for photoperiodic timekeeping. First, we show the persistence of rhythmic clock gene expression under constant light within the mediobasal hypothalamus and pars tuberalis, the key tissues in the seasonal neuroendocrine cascade. We then employ a “sliding skeleton photoperiod” protocol, revealing that the driving force behind seasonal biology of the Svalbard ptarmigan is rhythmic sensitivity to light, a feature that depends on a functioning circadian rhythm. Hence, the unusual selective pressures of life in the high Arctic have favored decoupling of the circadian clock from organization of daily activity patterns, while preserving its importance for seasonal synchronization.