Spare capacity and phenotypic flexibility in the digestive system of a migratory bird: Defining the limits of animal design

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Flexible phenotypes enable animals to live in environments that change over space and time, and knowing the limits to and the required time scale for this flexibility provides insights into constraints on energy and nutrient intake, diet diversity and niche width. We quantified the level of immediate and ultimate spare capacity, and thus the extent of phenotypic flexibility, in the digestive system of a migratory bird in response to increased energy demand, and identified the digestive constraints responsible for the limits on sustained energy intake. Immediate spare capacity decreased from approximately 50% for birds acclimated to relatively benign temperatures to less than 20% as birds approached their maximum sustainable energy intake. Ultimate spare capacity enabled an increase in feeding rate of approximately 126% as measured in birds acclimated for weeks at -29°C compared with +21°C. Increased gut size and not tissue-specific differences in nutrient uptake or changes in digestive efficiency or retention time were primarily responsible for this increase in capacity with energy demand, and this change required more than 1-2 days. Thus, the pace of change in digestive organ size may often constrain energy intake and, for birds, retard the pace of their migration. © 2014 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.

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Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences