Allocation of endogenous and dietary protein in the reconstitution of the gastrointestinal tract in migratory blackcaps at stopover sites

Agustí Muñoz-Garcia, Sarah E. Aamidor, Marshall D. McCue, Scott R. McWilliams, Berry Pinshow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


During migratory flight, the mass of the gastrointestinal tract (GIT) and its associated organs in small birds decreases in size by as much as 40%, compared with the preflight condition because of the catabolism of protein. At stopover sites, birds need 2-3 days to rebuild their GIT so that they can restore body mass and fat reserves to continue migration. The source of protein used to rebuild the GIT may be exogenous (from food ingested) or endogenous (reallocated from other organs) or both. Because the relative contribution of these sources to rebuild the GIT of migratory birds is not yet known, we mimicked in-flight fasting and then re-feeding in two groups of blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla), a Palearctic migratory passerine. The birds were fed a diet containing either 3% or 20% protein to simulate different refueling scenarios. During re-feeding, birds received known doses of 15N-L-leucine before we measured the isotope concentrations in GIT and associated digestive organs and in locomotory muscles. We then quantified the extent to which blackcaps rebuilt their GIT with endogenous and/or dietary protein while refeeding after a fast. Our results indicate that blackcaps fed the low-protein diet incorporated less exogenous nitrogen into their tissues than birds fed the 20% protein diet. They also allocated relatively more exogenous protein to the GIT than to pectoral muscle than those birds re-fed with the high-protein diet. However, this compensation was not sufficient for birds eating the low-protein diet to rebuild their intestine at the same rate as the birds re-fed the high-protein diet. We concluded that blackcaps must choose stopover sites at which they can maximize protein intake to minimize the time it takes to rebuild their GIT and, thus, resume migration as soon as possible.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1069-1075
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number7
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2012


  • Blackcap
  • Gastrointestinal tract
  • Migration
  • Stable isotope
  • Stopover

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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