Is long-distance bird flight equivalent to a high-energy fast? Body composition changes in freely migrating and captive fasting great knots

Physiol Biochem Zool. 2001 May-Jun;74(3):435-49. doi: 10.1086/320432.


We studied changes in body composition in great knots, Calidris tenuirostris, before and after a migratory flight of 5,400 km from northwest Australia to eastern China. We also took premigratory birds into captivity and fasted them down to their equivalent arrival mass after migration to compare organ changes and nutrient use in a low-energy-turnover fast with a high-energy-turnover fast (migratory flight). Migrated birds were as economical as any fasting animal measured yet at conserving protein: their estimated relative protein contribution (RPC) to the energy used was 4.0%. Fasted birds had an estimated RPC of 6.8% and, consequently, a much lower lean mass and higher fat content for an equivalent body mass than migrated birds. Lean tissue was catabolized from most organs in both groups, except the brain. Furthermore, a principal components biplot showed that individuals were grouped primarily on the basis of overall organ fat or lean tissue content rather than by the size of specific organs. This indicates that organ changes during migratory flight are similar to those of a low-energy fast, although the length of the fast in this study probably accentuated organ reductions in some functional groups. Whether the metabolic characteristics of a flying migratory fast follow the three-phase model described in many inactive fasting animals is unclear. We have some evidence for skeletal fat being catabolized without phase 3 of a fast having been reached.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Analysis of Variance
  • Animals
  • Animals, Domestic
  • Animals, Wild
  • Australia
  • Birds / anatomy & histology
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Body Composition
  • Body Weight
  • China
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Fasting / physiology*
  • Flight, Animal / physiology*
  • Organ Size