Physiological responses to food deprivation in the house sparrow, a species not adapted to prolonged fasting

Anton Khalilieh, Marshall D. McCue, Berry Pinshow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Many wild birds fast during reproduction, molting, migration, or because of limited food availability. Species that are adapted to fasting sequentially oxidize endogenous fuels in three discrete phases. We hypothesized that species not adapted to long fasts have truncated, but otherwise similar, phases of fasting, sequential changes in fuel oxidization, and similar changes in blood metabolites to fasting-adapted species. We tested salient predictions in house sparrows (Passer domesticus biblicus), a subspecies that is unable to tolerate more than ~32 h of fasting. Our main hypothesis was that fasting sparrows sequentially oxidize substrates in the order carbohydrates, lipids, and protein. We dosed 24 house sparrows with [13C]glucose, palmitic acid, or glycine and measured 13CO2 in their breath while they fasted for 24 h. To ascertain whether blood metabolite levels reflect fastinginduced changes in metabolic fuels, we also measured glucose, triacylglycerides, and β-hydroxybutyrate in the birds' blood. The results of both breath 13CO2 and plasma metabolite analyses did not support our hypothesis; i.e., that sparrows have the same metabolic responses characteristic of fasting-adapted species, but on a shorter time scale. Contrary to our main prediction, we found that recently assimilated 13C-tracers were oxidized continuously in different patterns with no definite peaks corresponding to the three phases of fasting and also that changes in plasma metabolite levels accurately tracked the changes found by breath analysis. Notably, the rate of recently assimilated [13C]glycine oxidization was significantly higher (P < 0.001) than that of the other metabolic tracers at all postdosing intervals. We conclude that the inability of house sparrows to fast for longer than 32 h is likely related to their inability to accrue large lipid stores, separately oxidize different fuels, and/or spare protein during fasting.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)R551-R561
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Regulatory Integrative and Comparative Physiology
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1 Sep 2012


  • Blood metabolites
  • Breath testing
  • CO
  • Fasting
  • House sparrow
  • Stable isotopes
  • Starvation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Physiology (medical)


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