Plasticity in body composition in breeding birds: what drives the metabolic costs of egg production?

Physiol Biochem Zool. Sep-Oct 2003;76(5):716-30. doi: 10.1086/376425.


Body composition in vertebrates is known to show phenotypic plasticity, and changes in organ masses are usually rapid and reversible. One of the most rapid and reversible changes is the transformation of the female avian reproductive organs before breeding. This provides an excellent system to investigate the effects of plasticity in organ size on basal metabolic rate (BMR) through relationships between organ masses and BMR. We compared body composition of female European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) during various reproductive stages over 3 yr and investigated the pattern of changes in reproductive and nonreproductive organ mass during follicular development and ovulation. Furthermore, we analyzed the relationship between organ mass and resting metabolic rate (RMR) in nonbreeding, laying, and chick-rearing females. Our analysis revealed marked variation in organ masses between breeding stages but no consistent pattern among years except for kidney and pectoralis muscle. Furthermore, changes in nonreproductive organs did not parallel the cycle of growth and regression of the reproductive organs. The oviduct gained 62% of its 22-fold increase in mass in only 3 d, and oviduct regression was just as rapid and began even before the final egg of the clutch was laid, with 42% of the oviduct mass lost before laying of the final egg. In laying females, 18% of variation in mass-corrected RMR was explained by the mass of the oviduct (r2=0.18, n=80, P<0.0005), while pectoralis muscle mass in nonbreeding individuals and liver and gizzard mass in chick-rearing females were the only organs significantly related to RMR (r2=0.31-0.44). We suggest that the nonreproductive organs are affected more by changes in local ecological conditions than the reproductive state itself and that the activity and maintenance cost of the oviduct is high enough that selection has led to a very tight size-function relationship for this organ.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Basal Metabolism / physiology
  • Body Composition / physiology*
  • Body Weights and Measures
  • British Columbia
  • Cholesterol, VLDL / blood
  • Female
  • Models, Biological*
  • Oviducts / growth & development
  • Oviposition
  • Ovum / physiology*
  • Reproduction / physiology*
  • Songbirds / physiology*


  • Cholesterol, VLDL