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Life on the Scales

Simple mathematical relationships underpin much of biology and ecology

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6:53pm, February 8, 2005

A mouse lives just a few years, while an elephant can make it to age 70. In a sense, however, both animals fit in the same amount of life experience. In its brief life, a mouse squeezes in, on average, as many heartbeats and breaths as an elephant does. Compared with those of an elephant, many aspects of a mouse's life—such as the rate at which its cells burn energy, the speed at which its muscles twitch, its gestation time, and the age at which it reaches maturity—are sped up by the same factor as its life span is. It's as if in designing a mouse, someone had simply pressed the fast-forward button on an elephant's life. This pattern relating life's speed to its length also holds for a sparrow, a gazelle, and a person—virtually any of the birds and mammals, in fact. Small animals live fast and die young, while big animals plod through much longer lives.

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