Carbon turnover in tissues of a passerine bird: Allometry, isotopic clocks, and phenotypic flexibility in organ size

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Stable isotopes are an important tool for physiological and behavioral ecologists, although their usefulness depends on a thorough understanding of the dynamics of isotope incorporation into tissue(s) over time. In contrast to hair, claws, and feathers, most animal tissues continuously incorporate carbon (and other elements), and so carbon isotope values may change over time, depending on resource use and tissue-specific metabolic rates. Here we report the carbon turnover rate for 12 tissues from a passerine bird, the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata). We measured average carbon retention time (τ) for 8 d for small intestine; 10-13 d for gizzard, kidney, liver, pancreas, and proventriculus; 17-21 d for heart, brain, blood, and flight muscle; and 26-28 d for leg muscle and skin. We used these data, along with the few other published estimates, to confirm that the fractional rate of isotopic turnover for red blood cells, whole blood, liver, and leg muscle scales with body mass to approximately the -1/4 power. Our data also support several key assumptions of the "isotopic-clock" model, which uses differences in isotope value between tissues, along with estimates of turnover rate of these tissues, to predict time elapsed since a diet shift. Finally, we show that between-tissues differences in turnover rate largely, but not entirely, explain the extent of phenotypic flexibility in organs of garden warblers during their long-distance flight across the Sahara Desert during spring. More studies that measure tissue-specific protein synthesis, metabolic rate, and elemental turnover in many tissues from a variety of animals are needed. © 2009 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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Physiological and Biochemical Zoology