Universal model for water costs of gas exchange by animals and plants

H. Arthur Woods, Jennifer N. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


For terrestrial animals and plants, a fundamental cost of living is water vapor lost to the atmosphere during exchange of metabolic gases. Here, by bringing together previously developed models for specific taxa, we integrate properties common to all terrestrial gas exchangers into a universal model of water loss. The model predicts that water loss scales to gas exchange with an exponent of 1 and that the amount of water lost per unit of gas exchanged depends on several factors: the surface temperature of the respiratory system near the outside of the organism, the gas consumed (oxygen or carbon dioxide), the steepness of the gradients for gas and vapor, and the transport mode (convective or diffusive). Model predictions were largely confirmed by data on 202 species in five taxa - insects, birds, bird eggs, mammals, and plants - spanning nine orders of magnitude in rate of gas exchange. Discrepancies between model predictions and data seemed to arise from biologically interesting violations of model assumptions, which emphasizes how poorly we understand gas exchange in some taxa. The universal model provides a unified conceptual framework for analyzing exchange-associated water losses across taxa with radically different metabolic and exchange systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)8469-8474
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number18
StatePublished - May 4 2010


  • Carbon dioxide
  • Oxygen
  • Respiration
  • Scaling
  • Temperature


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