Skip to content

Examine: Protein is essential for long-distance migratory birds


    A staff of scientists led by researchers on the College of Massachusetts Amherst has lately made a shocking discovery, with the assistance of a wind tunnel and a flock of birds. Songbirds, a lot of which make twice-yearly, continuous flights of greater than 1,000 miles to get from breeding vary to wintering vary, gasoline themselves by burning numerous fats and a shocking quantity of the protein making up lean physique mass, together with muscle, early within the flight.

    This flips the traditional knowledge on its head, which had assumed that migrating birds solely ramped up protein consumption on the very finish of their journeys, as a result of they would want to make use of each ounce of muscle for wing-flapping, not gasoline. The outcomes appeared lately within the Proceedings of the Nationwide Academy of Sciences.

    “Birds are superb animals,” says Cory Elowe, the paper’s lead writer and a postdoctoral researcher in biology at UMass Amherst, the place he acquired his Ph.D. “They’re excessive endurance athletes; a hen that weighs half an oz. can fly, continuous, flapping for 100 hours at a time, from Canada to South America. How is that this potential? How do they gasoline their flight?”

    For a really very long time, biologists assumed that birds fueled such feats of endurance by burning fats reserves. And certainly, fats is a vital a part of migratory birds’ secret combine. “The birds in our checks burned fats at a constant fee all through their flights,” says Elowe. “However we additionally discovered that they burn protein at an especially excessive fee very early of their flights, and that the speed at which they burn protein tapers off because the period of the flight will increase.”

    “It is a new perception,” says Alexander Gerson, affiliate professor of biology at UMass Amherst and the paper’s senior writer. “Nobody has been in a position to measure protein burn to this extent in birds earlier than.”

    “We knew that birds burned protein, however not at this fee, and never so early of their flights,” continues Gerson. “What’s extra, these small songbirds can burn 20% of their muscle mass after which construct all of it again in a matter of days.”

    To make this breakthrough, Elowe had assist from the bird-banding operators at Lengthy Level Chicken Observatory, in Ontario, alongside the northern shore of Lake Erie. Each fall, tens of millions of birds collect close to the observatory on their journey to their wintering grounds — together with the Blackpoll Warbler, a small songbird that travels 1000’s of miles throughout its migration. After capturing 20 Blackpolls and 44 Yellow-rumped Warblers — a shorter distance migrant — utilizing mist nets, Elowe and his colleagues then transported the birds to the Superior Facility for Avian Analysis at Western College, which has a specialised wind tunnel constructed particularly for observing birds in flight.

    Elowe measured the birds’ fats and lean physique mass pre-flight, then, when the solar set, let the birds free within the wind tunnel. As a result of the birds naturally migrate at evening, Elowe and his colleagues would then keep awake — at one level, for 28 hours — waiting for when a hen would determine to relaxation. At that time, the researchers would acquire the hen and once more measure its fats and lean physique mass content material, evaluating them with the pre-flight measurements.

    “One of many greatest surprises was that each hen nonetheless had loads of fats left when it selected to finish its flight,” says Elowe. “However their muscular tissues have been emaciated. Protein, not fats, appears to be a limiting think about figuring out how far birds can fly.”

    The researchers nonetheless don’t fairly know why the birds are burning such huge shops of protein so early of their journeys, however the potential solutions open a variety of future analysis avenues.

    “How precisely is it potential to fritter away your muscular tissues and inside organs, after which rebuild them as shortly as these birds do,” wonders Gerson. “What insights into the evolution of metabolism would possibly these birds yield?”

    Elowe is interested in shivering — nonmigratory birds that overwinter in chilly areas hold themselves heat by shivering. “That is additionally a feat of endurance,” says Elowe. “Do birds gasoline their winter shivering spells the identical approach? And because the world warms, which methodology of dealing with the chilly — shivering or migrating — could be the higher choice for survival?”

    Because of the College of Massachusetts Amherst for offering this information.

    Far-flying Blackpoll Warbler crosses continent earlier than crossing ocean

    Learn our e-newsletter!

    Join our free e-newsletter to obtain information, images of birds, attracting and ID ideas, and extra delivered to your inbox.

    Signal Up for Free