rhythm, biological

rhythm, biological, cyclic pattern of physiological changes or changes in activity in living organisms, most often synchronized with daily, monthly, or annual cyclical changes in the environment. The exact nature of the internal mechanism, or "biological clock," that controls such rhythms is not understood. Rhythms that vary according to the time of day, called circadian rhythms, include such phenomena as the opening and closing of flowers and, in humans, changes in body temperature, blood pressure, and urine production. In diurnal animals, activity increases in daylight; in nocturnal animals nighttime activity predominates. Activity of many marine organisms varies according to the tide. Monthly rhythms include weight changes in men and the menstrual period in women. Annual cycles, or circannual rhythms, include bird migrations, reproductive activity, and mammalian hibernation. Daily cycles, or circadian rhythms, are in part a response to daylight or dark, and annual cycles in part responses to changes in the relative length of periods of daylight. However, environmentally determined cyclical changes, such as changes in daylight, temperature, and availability of food, serve primarily to refine and adjust physiologically determined circadian or circannual rhythms: in the absence of external cues, the internal rhythms gradually drift out of phase with the environment. Physiological rhythms are also present in the activity of individual organs, e.g., the beating of heart muscle and the activity of electrical waves of the brain.

See G. G. Luce, Biological Rhythms in Human and Animal Physiology (1971); J. Brady, ed., Biological Timekeeping (1982); L. Glass and M. C. Mackey, From Clocks to Chaos: The Rhythms of Life (1988).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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