Archive for May 14th, 2010

Comparative Digestion


The method of digestion which an animal uses depends on its diet i.e. carnivore, herbivore or omnivore. For example not all mammals are carnivores (e.g. dogs and cats), herbivorous mammals include rabbits, chinchillas, guinea pigs etc.

Generally, carnivores consume animal tissue which is similar to their own; therefore all the body needs to do is break down the tissue and absorb the different components which can then be used in the carnivores own body. Omnivores have very similar digestive systems to carnivores with the addition of a caecum.

Herbivores consume plant matter which is more difficult to break down than tissue. Therefore herbivores have evolved fermentation systems which contain specific microflora, the microflora breakdown the plant material releasing useful nutrients which the herbivore utilises.

Digestion by Diet:


Because meat is easily digested, the gastric system of carnivores is typically short and simple. They are monogastric meaning they have only one stomach (unlike a ruminants’ stomach which has four chambers). Due to the ease at which components required for growth are obtained from food, some carnivores have lost the ability to synthesis them (e.g. cats are unable to synthesis taurine).

The teeth of carnivores are sharp and strong, this makes it easy to rip and tear meat from bones of prey. When possible, the meat is broken down further by the teeth to ensure maximum surface area for digestion by enzymes in the stomach and small intestines. True carnivores do not have digestive enzymes in their saliva.

Due to the lack of salivary enzymes, food spends little time in the mouth of a carnivore, it is shortly swallowed and travels down the oesophagus. The oesophagus is a tube which runs from the pharynx (back of the oral cavity) to the stomach. The walls of the oesophagus are protected from damage by food by stratified squamous epithelium arranged in longitudinal folds, this also allows for expansion as the food travels down to the stomach. Food is passed down the oesophagus by peristalsis which is the contraction and relaxation of longitudinal and circular muscles, pushing food down to the stomach in wave like motion.

The next stop is the stomach, the stomach has multiple roles in digestion, including:

  • A reservoir for food
  • A sterilising chamber, due to the low pH (high acid content – HCL)
  • A churning chamber to mix food with digestive gastric juices a
  • The initial site of protein digestion, primarily by pepsin – secreted by the epithelial lining of the stomach

Food is moved to the next site of digestion, the small intestine, by peristalsis. The small intestine is a long and narrow ‘tube’ with a structure and epithelium that maximises surface area. This is important because the small intestine is the primary site of digestion by enzymes. Food continues to travel along the small intestine by peristalsis. The small intestine can be divided into the duodenum, jejunum and the ileum. The pancreatic duct connects the pancreas to the duodenum – the majority of the digestive enzymes enter the small intestine by this duct. To aid in lipid digestion, bile is secreted by the liver (stored in the gallbladder). Bile emulsifies lipids which gives them a larger surface area, increasing enzyme efficiency.

The small intestine joins to the large intestine, which consists of the caecum, colon and rectum. In carnivores the caecum has no function (as it is used in herbivores/omnivores as a site of bacterial fermentation of plant matter). The colon absorbs minimal nutrients from the ingested food; instead its primary role is the reabsorption of water, vitamins and electrolytes from the mixture of food, saliva and gastric & pancreatic juices passing through. This prevents excessive water loss and therefore dehydration. The remnants are excreted via the rectum and anal sphincters.


Herbivores only consume plant material which is very difficult to digest. No vertebrates make an enzyme capable of breaking down cellulose, the tough sugar that makes up plant cell walls which is unfortunate as its digestion yields glucose. As the diet includes large amounts of fibre the digestive tract of herbivores is comparatively much longer than carnivores, due to fibre being much more difficult to digest.

To overcome this herbivores have developed a symbiotic relationship with a population of microflora that inhabit a specialised region of the gut for fermentation e.g. the caecum or rumen of ruminants. The microflora population of the gut is able to breakdown cellulose and use the glucose for its own metabolic needs. As a waste product of this process, the microflora population releases volatile fatty acids (e.g. acetate, butyrate & propionate) which the herbivore utilises for energy. The production of these fatty acids is known as fermentation (fermentation also produces heat which keeps the animal warm).

There are two types of fermenting herbivores, those which ferment in the foregut and those which ferment in the hindgut. The difference between them is the site of fermentation and the organ used for fermentation; the attributes of the fermentation chamber remain the same however – Anaerobic, plenty of fluid, regulated pH, steady nitrogen supply and the correct temperature.

  • Foregut Fermentation – The majority of foregut fermenters are ruminants (including cow, sheep, goat, ox and deer) who ferment their food before it reaches the ‘true’ stomach. The stomach of a ruminant exists as four chambers which are the rumen, reticulum, omasum and abomasum (true stomach). Non-ruminant foregut fermenters (e.g. camels, llamas and whales) do not have the four distinct chambers; instead they simply have modifications to the gut before the true stomach which allows them to ferment. Ruminants digest food more efficiently than hindgut fermenters as they are able to consume food into the rumen – the site of fermentation, allow microbial digestion and then regurgitate the ‘cud’ and chew it some more. This means by the time the ingested food reaches the abomasum, all the extractable nutrients have been metabolised (some microflora from the rumen may also be digested in the abomasum which increases nutrient intake).
  • Hindgut Fermentation – Hindgut fermenters (e.g. e.g. elephant, horse, guinea pig, rabbit, herbivorous reptiles, e.g. tortoise and herbivorous birds) have a digestive system very similar to carnivores, except due to the large amounts of fibre and other difficult-to-digest components of the diet, the complete digestive tract is much longer. Hindgut fermenters also have a working, enlarged caecum which is the site of bacterial fermentation. The process of fermentation is the same as that of foregut fermenters, however as the caecum is located after the stomach and small intestine, the majority of food reaches the caecum undigested. Bacterial fermentation occurs in the caecum and colon allowing some volatile fatty acids to be absorbed, but then the digested food is excreted (along with the microflora). This is why some hindgut fermenters are seen eating their faeces – the food making up the faeces has been digested by the microflora making it of nutritional value. The ingestion of the faeces allows the restoration of the microflora population.

The foregut fermenter herbivores are a lot more efficient as the food is digested on the first pass through the digestive system. Unfortunately for hindgut fermenters digestion is more difficult; however they do have the ability to expel their microflora population which is useful during times such as hibernation.


Omnivores consume both meat and plant matter; they have a digestive system very similar to carnivores but also have a working caecum (not as well adapted as in herbivores). Due to this flexibility they are able to consume a wide diet, which has also prevented them losing the ability to synthesise certain products in the body (as in carnivores).

The process of digestion is extremely similar to carnivores, except a few minor adaptations which allow them to digested plant matter – although not as efficiently as herbivores.

Digestion by Species:

Many species have digestive systems very similar to those shown above; however there may be slight tweaks to the systems between the species, below are some examples.


Birds do not have teeth and so cannot chew; they are able to break up food however by using their beak. Only some species of bird (e.g. sparrow) are able to produce saliva with the amylase enzyme (for digestion of carbohydrates prior to the stomach).

When a bird swallows food, it passes down the oesophagus into a structure called the crop. The crop is primarily a storage area for food consumed by the bird, differing in size between species however certain adaptions in some species allow it to produce ‘crop milk’ which is rich in protein and fat and fed to the young during their first few days of life. Another adaptation found in one species so far, is that the crop acts as a foregut fermentation chamber.

The stomach of a bird exists as two parts, the proventriculus and the gizzard (ventriculus). As the bird is unable to chew, powerful muscles in the gizzard allow it to grind food up, the presence of grit in the gizzard aids this process.

From this point, the digestive system is similar to other species – small intestine, large intestine, etc.  until it reaches the end of the tract. At the end of the large intestine, the digestive tract opens into the cloaca which is simply a common exit, shared with the urinary and reproductive tracts. Shortly before the cloaca there is a pair of caecum or caeca, unlike the single caecum found in other species. (The caeca are rudimentary or absent in species such as hawks and parrots).


Rabbits are herbivorous hindgut fermenters able to rapidly pass food through their digestive system and quickly eliminate fibre. Due to this ability, he rabbit has remained small and agile, able to quickly escape predators.

Rabbits have a very typical herbivorous digestive system, the only differences are they are unable to vomit and have a large caecum.

One variation, which rabbits are well known for is that they consume their own faeces – coprophagia. This is due to them being hindgut fermenters and losing a fair amount of nutrients and vitamins in the faeces. The rabbit produces two forms of faeces:

  1. Hard, fibrous –No nutritional value
  2. Soft, caecotrophs – High protein content as well as vitamins B & K and volatile fatty acids. The caecotrophs are not digested/damaged in the stomach acid as a layer of mucus surrounds them and protects them, this allows all the nutrients and vitamins to be absorbed in the small intestine

Myomorphs (Rodents)

Myomorphs are omnivorous and have a very typical digestive system. Due to a structure between the oesophagus and cardiac region of the stomach however, it is almost impossible for them to regurgitate food.

Most of the rodents in this group lack a caecum or similar specific organ involved in the fermentation of cellulose, hamster however do have a foregut – similar to ruminants, which has a high pH and a large microflora population.

All myomorphs, like rabbits show some degree of coprophagia for the same reasons – to consume the vitamins and nutrients lost in the faecal pellets.

Sciuromorphs (Chipmunks)

Also an omnivore and has a very similar digestive system to myomorphs.

Hystricomorph (Guinea Pigs/Chinchilla)

The guinea pig is an herbivorous hindgut fermenter, which a large caecum for its body size – containing up to 65% of the total contents of the digestive tract at one time. As will myomorphs, guinea pigs exhibit coprophagia.

Chinchillas are very similar to guinea pigs, they have evolved however to survive on the nutritionally poor yet highly fibrous grasses of the Andes, this means over indulgence of highly nutritious treats (captive kept chinchillas) can cause fatal constipation or diarrhoea.

Chelonians (Turtles, Tortoises & Terrapins)

Chelonians lack teeth so have to use their horny, beak like structure to cut up food. The small intestine of chelonians is relatively short when compared to mammals. Like birds, reptiles have a common exit from the body – the cloaca (urinary, digestive and reproductive systems exit from here).


Snakes are carnivorous and possess many teeth which are regularly replaced. Due to the shape of the snake (elongated) the digestive system remains the same, but all the organs are also elongated appropriately.


The diets of lizards vary greatly, so the digestive system adapts accordingly, from herbivorous to insectivorous. Variations occur in the efficiency of the caecum (herbivorous/omnivorous lizards).


Predatory, carnivorous fish have ‘throat teeth’ located just before their oesophagus used for catching and holding prey. Structure of the digestive system are more tube shaped than in other species and can vary in length greatly, depending on the diet of the fish.


The Somatosensory System


The somatosensory system comprises of ‘senses’ known as sensory modalities, these include; tactition (touch), temperature, proprioception (body position awareness) and nociception (pain). It is possible there are others, and these categories may be broken down further, for example kinaesthesia is the awareness of muscle strain/tension which is a form of nociception/proprioception.

Sensory receptors and sensory (afferent) neurones of the somatosensory system can be found from the periphery (such as the skin, muscles and organs) through to the deeper neurones of the central nervous system. Specific receptors are able to detect different stimuli; the stimulation of a receptor causes information to be sent along neurones to the corresponding area of the brain.

General Organisation of the Somatosensory System

A typical somatosensory pathway will begin with a sensory receptor (for example a mechanoreceptor which is able to detect stress/stretch in the skin – helping to form the tactile sensory modality). The stimulation of the receptor will cause information to be sent to the brain, where it will be perceived (in this example as touch). The information is sent to the brain through the spinal cord, typically three long neurones will facilitate this.

The cell body of the first neurone is located in the dorsal root ganglion of the corresponding spinal nerve. The second neuronal cell body is located in the midbrain for motor/touch sensory modalities and the spinal cord for pain sensory modalities. Neurones involved in pain sensory modalities travel to the thalamus, up the spinal cord via the spinothalamic tract.

It is at this point that the ascending neurones cross-over (decussate) to the opposite side of either the spinal cord or midbrain (depending on the sensory modality – above), typically upon entry of the structure of decussation. The axons of these neurones mainly terminate in the thalamus, but may also terminate in the reticular system or cerebellum of the brain.

In the case of touch and pain, the third neurone has its cell body located in the ventral posterior nucleus of the thalamus. The axon of this final neurone terminates in the postcentral gyrus (sometimes referred to as the somatosensory cortex) of the parietal lobe – where sensory information from different modalities is integrated.

Ascending Somatosensory Pathways

Information from sensory modalities is transmitted to the brain, via the spinal cord. These ascending neurones are able to take multiple pathways to reach their destination. These pathways can be split into three main routes.

Dorsal Column Pathway

The dorsal column pathway:

  • This pathway carries tactile and proprioception sensory modality information. Touch discrimination is owed to this pathway.
  • Sensory information arrives through the dorsal horn and is carried to the dorsal columns (which consist of the Gracile & Cuneate fasciculi)
  • The neurones synapse in the Gracile & Cuneate fasciculi of the medulla, where they decussate
  • The neurones terminate at the thalamus; they travel there along the medial lemniscus. The role of the medial lemniscus is simply to carry the neurones from the Gracile & Cuneate fasciculi of the medulla to the thalamus.

Ventrolateral Pathway

The ventrolateral pathway carries all sensory modalities (except proprioception) but is specifically involved in the propagation of pain. This pathway can be divided into two, as there are two possible tracts which the sensory modalities can take. These are the spinothalamic tract and the spinoreticular tract.

The Spinothalamic Tract

  • Nociceptors (pain receptors) detect a stimulus and neurones carry this to the spinal cord
  • These neurones head directly to the thalamus from the spinal cord, without synapsing elsewhere (via the medial lemniscus)
  • This pathway is associated with nociception such as that from thermal stimuli or from a pinprick

The Spinoreticular Tract

  • Follows the same pathway as the spinothalamic tract except the neurones synapse in the reticular formation of the medulla (primarily associated with the sleep/awake cycle)
  • From the reticular formation the neurones continue to the thalamus
  • This pathway is associated with ‘true pain’

Spinocerebellar Pathway

This pathway is associated with muscle and joint proprioceptors primarily, involving it in postural reflexes. Many neurones which travel via this pathway do not decussate, as is common in the other pathways.

After entering the spinal cord from an appropriate proprioceptor (or kinaesthesia receptor etc.), the neurones synapse in the dorsal horn and then head straight to the cerebellum.

Segmental Organisation

The spinal cord can be divided into sections by which part of the body it serves; cervical (head/ immediate upper body & arms), thoracic (trunk), lumbar (lower back/legs) and sacral (hind). Each of these sections is then made up of 5-12 nerve pairs each serving a smaller sub section of the body/skin; they send sensory information to the brain from their corresponding section.

  • Cervical Nerve Pairs – 8
  • Thoracic Nerve Pairs – 12
  • Lumbar Nerve Pairs – 5
  • Sacral Nerve Pairs – 5

This is significant diagnostically, because the deratomes (small section of skin served by a spinal nerve pair) are served by a specific spinal nerve pair. This means pain deriving from a deratome (or area of skin) if located, can be tracked back to its spinal nerve source.

For example, a human with pain in the skin of the abdomen (Thoracic nerve 12 [Th12]) could point out this pain to a doctor. The pain would be a symptom of possible damage to Th12 and further action could be taken.


Certain sensory modalities such as nociception provide information which needs to be responded to rapidly, using the example of nociception the information received may be that a hot object is causing tissue damage and requires the removal/release of the object quickly. This type of action is usually processed without involvement of the conscious brain and is known as a reflex.

Comparing a conscious response to reflex:

Conscious Response

Reflex Response

Reflexes offer the chance to act quickly by using local processing in the spinal cord – without the need for information to travel to the brain, thus saving time. However there is another type of reflex (sometimes called a long loop, compared to a simple reflex – short loop) called an inter-segmental reflex. This type of reflex looks more like a conscious response, yet the conscious brain is still not involved, so it is deemed a reflex. The processing is done in the brainstem or a separate spinal cord segment, the complete pathway is as follows:

An example of this type of reflex is the ‘Tonic-Neck’ reflex; the reorientation of the head (and thus neck) causes a reflex repositioning of the body and limbs to accommodate the new posture.


So we have discussed the transmission of somatosensory signals, but what about their detection? As said earlier, receptors found all over the periphery of the body (e.g. skin, muscle, and organs) detect specific stimuli and transmit the information to the brain, but there are multiple types of receptors available to detect the different stimuli.


Two key attributes of a mechanoreceptor are the size of its receptive field and the speed at which its fibres adapt. The receptive field is important for discriminating from where a stimulus arises. A small receptive field has better discrimination than a larger one. Typically smooth skin has a small receptive field.

The speed at which fibres adapts concerns how quickly the receptors become desensitised to a stimulus. Rapidly adapting fibres will quickly become desensitised and stop generating action potentials to a stimulus (they may fire action potentials when the stimulus is stopped), whereas slow adapting fibres generally continue to fire action potentials during the length of exposure to the stimulus.

Meissner’s Corpuscle

Found in smooth skin, these mechanoreceptors have a small receptive field and rapidly adapting fibres. They are said to perceive fluttering stimuli.

Pacinian Corpuscle

Found deep within all types of skin, these mechanoreceptors have a large receptive field and rapidly adapting fibres. They are able to perceive vibrations.

Merkel Discs

Found in all types of skin, fairly shallow. These mechanoreceptors have small receptive fields and slow adapting fibres. They are able to perceive pressure.

Ruffini Corpuscle

Found deep within all types of skin, these mechanoreceptors have large receptive fields and slow adapting fibres. They are able to perceive stretching.

Free Nerve Ending

Common receptors for temperature and nociception, they are able to express different types of receptors; mechanical, thermal nociception and polymodal nociception (slow burning pain from chemicals, temperature etc.)

Stimulation of Receptors

The majority of somatosensory receptors are modified ion channels, which when stimulated allow the influx of ions and depolarisation which results in the generation of an action potential and its transduction.

Mechanoreceptors like those listed above; require some sort of mechanical stress e.g. stretching, to stimulate them. This causes the shape of the receptor to distort and opens the ion channel.

Chemoreceptors and thermoreceptors are stimulated by their corresponding stimulus, either directly or by the binding of the (chemical) stimulus to the receptor or a protein linked to the receptor. Again, stimulation leads to depolarisation and action potential generation.

Speed of Signal Transmission

The different receptors propagate their signals along nerve fibres which differ in the speed at which they transmit action potentials. Nerve fibres associated with pain are often much slower than those associated with touch. The different nerve fibres are classified as:

  • Aα – The fastest nerve fibre (72-120ms-1)
  • Aβ – Fast (36-72ms-1)
  • Aδ – Small, slow, myelinated fibres associated with nociception and temperature (4-36ms-1)
  • C – Small, very slow, unmyelinated fibres associated with nociception (0.4-2.0ms-1)


Pain Perception

Pain is the perception of nociception, until ‘pain’ reaches the cortex it is not pain, but nociception. It is believed that there is a ‘pain gate’ in the dorsal horn, the theory is that by preventing a ‘pain’ stimulus from passing through this gate you can prevent its perception as pain – making it a target for drugs.

Triple Response

The triple response is a phenomenon which occurs after inflammation, it results in pain – caused by irritant chemicals released after physical injury/damage. The chemicals are released onto the skin and free nerve endings. This causes nociception information to be sent to the spinal cord for processing, but the chemicals are also able to spread to other local nerves causing the release of more chemicals and more nociception transduction to the spinal cord. The overall effect is the spreading of inflammation and pain to a larger area than was originally damaged.

The Route of the Somatosensory System through the Brain

Upon reaching the brain, the majority of somatosensory information travels through the thalamus and continues further into the brain. From the thalamus, information head to the sensory cortex. Processing here allows the sensory modalities to be perceived.