Two experiments designed to compare lambs born to Merino ewes subjected to either nutritional deprivation or high ambient temperatures (diurnal: 8 h at 42·2 °C, 16 h at 32·2 °C) during the last two thirds of gestation are described.
In Expt 1, lambs from ewes group-fed to maintain maternal body weight at high ambient temperature were lighter (P < 0·01) and had shorter metacarpal bones (P < 0·01) than those from ewes fed to either lose, maintain or gain weight at prevailing temperatures (– 2·0 °C to + 16·4 °C). The regression of metacarpal length on the cube-root of birth weight (‘linear equivalence’) was linear. Simple maternal under-nutrition was thus not indicated as a cause of foetal stunting in heat-stressed ewes, though the proportions of affected lambs closely resembled those of the nutritional dwarfs.
In Expt 2, in which all ewes were individually fed, heat-stressed ewes fed ad libitum consumed 40% less feed and produced lambs which were markedly lighter than those from controls at prevailing temperatures. Other control ewes pair-fed at the level of intake of heat-stressed ewes gave birth to lambs of similar weight to those fed ad libitum. Thus, although feed intake was substantially reduced at high temperatures, the amounts actually eaten by heat-stressed ewes were sufficient to enable control ewes to produce lambs of normal weight. The relationships between birth weight and the weight of the adrenals, cerebellum, cerebrum, heart, kidneys, liver, spleen and thyroid were linear, irrespective of treatment, and as in Expt 1 metacarpal length was linearly related to the linear equivalence of birth weight. However, not all changes in body components were directly proportional to changes in the body as a whole, and heat-affected lambs were thus neither true miniatures nor achondroplastic dwarfs. Until these relationships are clarified it is suggested that ‘stunting’ is the most appropriate description of the influence of high ambient temperature on the sheep foetus.
The findings are consistent with the suggestion that the adverse effects of high temperature arise from an extreme form of foetal undernutrition.