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Does Gut Function Limit Hummingbird Food Intake?

McWhorter, T. J.
del Rio, Carlos Martinez
Many nectar-feeding bird species decrease food intake when sugar concentration in food is increased. This feeding response can be explained by two alternative hypotheses: compensatory feeding and physiological constraint. The compensatory feeding hypothesis predicts that if birds vary intake to maintain a constant energy intake to match energy expenditures, then they should increase intake when expenditures are increased. Broad-tailed hummingbirds were presented with sucrose solutions at four concentrations (292, 584, 876, and 1,168 mmol L-1) and exposed to two environmental temperatures (10° and 22° C). Birds decreased volumetric food intake in response to sugar concentration. However, when they were exposed to a relatively sudden drop in environmental temperature and, hence, to an acute increase in thermoregulatory energy expenditures, they did not increase their rate of energy consumption and lost mass. These results support the existence of a physiological constraint on feeding intake. A simple chemical reactor model based on intestinal morphology and in vitro measurements of sucrose hydrolysis predicted observed intake rates closely. This model suggests that intestinal sucrose hydrolysis rates were near maximal and, thus, may have imposed limits to sugar assimilation. Although sugar assimilation was high (95%), the proportions of excreted sucrose, glucose, and fructose found in excreta differed significantly. The monosaccharides glucose and fructose were about eight and three times more abundant than sucrose, respectively. Broad-tailed hummingbirds are small high-altitude endotherms that face unpredictable weather and the energetic expense of premigratory fattening. Digestive processes have the potential to impose severe challenges to their energy budgets.
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