Modulation of ingested water absorption by Palestine sunbirds: Evidence for adaptive regulation

Todd J. McWhorter, Carlos Martínez Del Rio, Berry Pinshow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Nectarivorous birds feed on dilute sugar solutions containing trace amounts of amino acids and electrolytes. To meet their high mass-specific energy demands they must often deal with exceptionally high proportionate water fluxes. Despite nectar intake rates that may reach more than five times body mass per day, hummingbirds appear to absorb all ingested water. Here, we report the results of experiments designed to examine the relationship between nectar intake and water turnover in nectar-feeding Palestine sunbirds (Nectarinia osea). Like hummingbirds, sunbirds ingested large amounts of water. At the lowest sucrose concentration (292mmol l-1), food intake rates reached 2.2 times body mass. Fractional and total water turnover increased linearly with water ingestion, but the fraction of ingested water absorbed by sunbirds decreased from 100% to 36% with increasing water intake rate. Palestine sunbirds may therefore avoid absorbing, and thus having to eliminate, up to 64% of their ingested water load when feeding on dilute nectars. To our knowledge, this is the first documentation of regulation of water flux across the gastrointestinal tract to the body. Our data suggest that sunbirds regulate transepithelial water flux independently of sugar absorption. These intriguing results open the door to many questions about how water transport is regulated in the vertebrate gastrointestinal tract. We suggest that intestinal water and body water form two separate but interacting pools in nectar-feeding birds. Convergence in diet has led to the evolution of many similar traits in hummingbirds and sunbirds. The physiological traits of these two groups that allow the processing of a water and sugar diet, however, may be very different.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)659-666
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Feb 2003


  • Adaptive regulation
  • Hummingbird
  • Nectar
  • Nectarinia osea
  • Palestine sunbird
  • Water absorption
  • Water intake
  • Water turnover

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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