Large muscles are beneficial but not required for improving thermogenic capacity in small birds

Sci Rep. 2018 Sep 18;8(1):14009. doi: 10.1038/s41598-018-32041-w.


It is generally assumed that small birds improve their shivering heat production capacity by developing the size of their pectoralis muscles. However, some studies have reported an enhancement of thermogenic capacity in the absence of muscle mass variation between seasons or thermal treatments. We tested the hypothesis that an increase in muscle mass is not a prerequisite for improving avian thermogenic capacity. We measured basal (BMR) and summit (Msum) metabolic rates of black capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) acclimated to thermoneutral (27 °C) and cold (-10 °C) temperatures and obtained body composition data from dissections. Cold acclimated birds consumed 44% more food, and had 5% and 20% higher BMR and Msum, respectively, compared to individuals kept at thermoneutrality. However, lean dry pectoralis and total muscle mass did not differ between treatments, confirming that the improvement of thermogenic capacity did not require an increase in skeletal muscle mass. Nevertheless, within temperature treatments, Msum was positively correlated with the mass of all measured muscles, including the pectoralis. Therefore, for a given acclimation temperature individuals with large muscles do benefit from muscle size in term of heat production but improving thermogenic capacity during cold acclimation likely requires an upregulation of cell functions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization*
  • Animals
  • Basal Metabolism / physiology*
  • Body Composition
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology*
  • Pectoralis Muscles / physiology*
  • Seasons
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Thermogenesis / physiology*