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Phenotypic Flexibility during Migration: Optimization of Organ Size Contingent on the Risks and Rewards of Fueling and Flight?

Theunis Piersma
Journal of Avian Biology
Vol. 29, No. 4, Optimal Migration (Dec., 1998), pp. 511-520
Published by: Wiley on behalf of Nordic Society Oikos
DOI: 10.2307/3677170
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3677170
Page Count: 10
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Phenotypic Flexibility during Migration: Optimization of Organ Size Contingent on the Risks and Rewards of Fueling and Flight?
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Abstract

Avian long-distance migration involves the storage and expenditure of very large fuel loads. Birds may double in weight before take-off on flights of many 1000 km, and they may lose half their body mass over the subsequent few days that such trips take. Recent studies indicate that in addition to the storage and depletion of fat, the muscles and belly organs also undergo considerable changes in size in the course of such migrations. Such intraindividual and repeatedly reversed changes in stores and organ sizes represent a class of phenotypic plasticity called 'phenotypic flexibility'. Using preliminary comparative data for different populations of Bar-tailed Godwits Limosa lapponica, and several other shorebird species adding variation to the migration strategies sampled (Golden Plover Pluvialis apricaria, Ruff Philomachus pugnax, Red Knot Calidris canutus and Bristle-thighed Curlew Numenius tahitiensis), the thesis is developed that the size of the organs carried during take-off represent evolutionary compromises between their functions during the storage, flight and post-arrival phases of migration. In all cases fat-free tissue along with fat is deposited during fuel storage, but the proportions vary a great deal between similarly sized species. Just before departure on long-distance flights, exercise organs (pectoral muscle and heart) tend to show hypertrophy and nutritional organs (stomach, intestine and liver) tend to show atrophy. Reductions in nutritional organs appear most pronounced in (sub-) species that are about to overfly barren oceans with few or no opportunities for emergency landings. Migrant birds seem to show a great deal of adaptive flexibility, and the study of this flexibility may shed light on (presently unknown) physiological mechanisms as well as on correlated ecological constraints on bird migration.

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