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Are Hummingbirds Facultatively Ammonotelic?: Nitrogen Excretion and Requirements as a Function of Body Size

McWhorter, T. J.
Powers, D. R.
del Rio, Carlos Martinez
Most birds are uricotelic. An exception to this rule may be nectar-feeding birds, which excrete significant amounts of ammonia under certain conditions. Although ammonia is toxic, because it is highly water soluble its excretion may be facilitated in animals that ingest and excrete large amounts of water. Bird-pollinated plants secrete carbohydrate- and water-rich floral nectars that contain exceedingly little protein. Thus, nectar-feeding birds are faced with the dual challenge of meeting nitrogen requirements while disposing of large amounts of water. The peculiar diet of nectar-feeding birds suggests two hypotheses: (1) these birds must have low protein requirements, and (2) when they ingest large quantities of water their primary nitrogen excretion product may be ammonia. To test these hypotheses, we measured maintenance nitrogen requirements (MNR) and total endogenous nitrogen losses (TENL) in three hummingbird species (Archilochus alexandri, Eugenes fulgens, and Lampornis clemenciae) fed on diets with varying sugar, protein, and water content. We also quantified the form in which the by-products of nitrogen metabolism were excreted. The MNR and TENL of the hummingbirds examined were exceptionally low. However, no birds excreted more than 50% of nitrogen as ammonia or more nitrogen as ammonia than urates. Furthermore, ammonia excretion was not influenced by either water or protein intake. The smallest species (A. alexandri) excreted a significantly greater proportion (>25%) of their nitrogenous wastes as ammonia than the larger hummingbirds (≈4%). Our results support the hypothesis that nectar-feeding birds have low protein requirements but cast doubt on the notion that they are facultatively ammonotelic. Our data also hint at a possible size-dependent dichotomy in hummingbirds, with higher ammonia excretion in smaller species. Differences in proportionate water loads and/or postrenal modification of urine may explain this dichotomy.
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