Melatonin: generation and modulation of avian circadian rhythms

Brain Res Bull. 1997;44(4):439-44. doi: 10.1016/s0361-9230(97)00224-4.


The pineal organ and its hormone melatonin are significant components of avian circadian pacemaking systems. In songbirds, pinealectomy results in the abolition or destabilization of overt circadian rhythms such as the rhythm of locomotor activity, feeding, or body temperature. A stable rhythmicity can be restored either by reimplanting a pineal organ, by periodic injections or infusions of melatonin, or by applying melatonin rhythmically through the drinking water. Several results suggest that the pineal melatonin rhythm acts on at least one other oscillator within the circadian pacemaking system, presumably the SCN, which in turn, feeds back to the pineal. As described by the "Neuroendocrine Loop" and "Internal Resonance" models, overall pacemaker output thus depends on the relative strengths of the oscillations in the pineal and the SCN. Investigations on migratory birds have shown that the amplitude of the 24-h plasma melatonin rhythm is reduced during the migratory seasons compared with the nonmigratory seasons. According to the models mentioned above, such a reduced melatonin amplitude should result in a reduction in the degree of self-sustainment of the pacemaker as a whole. This, in turn, should facilitate adjustment to the altered Zeitgeber conditions encountered by these birds as a result of their own migratory flights. A seasonal reduction in melatonin amplitude also occurs in some high-latitude birds during midsummer and midwinter. Under such conditions a less self-sustained circadian pacemaker may enhance entrainability to weak zeitgeber conditions. These examples suggest that the properties of the circadian system may be adjusted to match the changing requirements for synchronization, and that this is achieved by altering the melatonin amplitude.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biological Clocks
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Circadian Rhythm / physiology*
  • Feedback
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Melatonin / physiology*
  • Models, Biological
  • Pineal Gland / physiology*
  • Suprachiasmatic Nucleus / physiology*


  • Melatonin