R. Bras. Zootec.01/Jul/2017;46(7):606-13.

Physiological adaptations of ruminants and their potential relevance for production systems

Marcus Clauss, Jürgen Hummel

DOI: 10.1590/S1806-92902017000700008


Herbivores face the dilemma that the level of feed intake is negatively related to factors that determine digestive efficiency, such as thoroughness of ingesta comminution by chewing, and retention of digesta in the digestive tract. Ruminants have evolved particular adaptations to solve this dilemma. Most ruminants share the characteristic of “digesta washing”: fluid moves through their digestive tract faster than particles, thus effectively washing very fine particles, such as bacteria, out of the digesta plug. As the forestomach is followed by auto-enzymatic digestion, this allows a continuous, increased harvest of microbes from the forestomach. True rumination only evolved twice, in the camelids and the true ruminants. These both evolved a density-dependent sorting mechanism based on physical separation of the digesta by the process of flotation and sedimentation, ensuring that the process of rumination is applied to large particles. Differences in this sorting mechanism might facilitate a faster digesta processing in true ruminants as compared with camelids. The hallmark of ruminant digestive anatomy is the omasum, in which the fluid required for both digesta washing and the reticular separation mechanism is re-absorbed. In ruminants of the tribe Bovini, the omasum has reached the largest size and this group has a particularly great forestomach fluid throughput. Increasing the degree of digesta washing even more should increase microbial harvest from the forestomach and reduce the susceptibility to acidosis. At the same time, it should result in a metabolic state of the microbiome more tuned towards biomass production and less towards methanogenesis. Enhancing the forestomach fluid throughput by selective breeding could represent a promising way to further advance the productivity of the ruminant digestive tract.

Physiological adaptations of ruminants and their potential relevance for production systems