Developmental changes in digestive physiology of nestling house sparrows, Passer domesticus

Physiol Biochem Zool. Sep-Oct 2001;74(5):769-82. doi: 10.1086/322966.


Six decades of studies have speculated that digestive capacity might limit avian growth rate or that developmental changes in the gut might determine developmental changes in digestive efficiency. However, there are no studies on digestive enzymes during avian development, except for studies on mainly domestic birds that exhibit the precocial mode of development. We studied alimentary organ masses, intestinal enzyme activities (sucrase, maltase, isomaltase, aminopeptidase-N), and pancreatic enzyme activities (amylase, trypsin, chymotrypsin) during development of a wild passerine bird exhibiting the altricial mode of development. Wild nestling house sparrows were studied immediately after removal from the nest (days 0, 3, 6 of age; day 0=hatch), whereas captives were raised in the laboratory beginning day 3 on a formulated casein/starch-based diet until fledging age (after day 12). Digestive biochemistry was dynamic. Tissue-specific activities of some digestive enzymes continued to increase through fledging, by >10 times in some cases (e.g., sucrase and maltase in midintestine). Total pancreatic amylase activity increased 100 times between hatch and day 12 through a combination of increases in tissue-specific activity and pancreas mass. House sparrows differ from poultry, in whom after about 2 wk of age the specific activity of intestinal and pancreatic digestive enzymes is generally constant or declines during development. The data on intestinal and pancreatic enzymes help explain why digestive efficiency of nestling house sparrows improves with age, and the data seem consistent with the idea that digestive capacity might limit feeding rate and hence growth rate.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Animals, Newborn / growth & development
  • Digestive System / enzymology*
  • Digestive System / growth & development*
  • Digestive System Physiological Phenomena
  • Pancreas / enzymology*
  • Pancreas / growth & development*
  • Pancreas / physiology
  • Poultry
  • Songbirds / growth & development*
  • Songbirds / physiology