Flight at Low Ambient Humidity Increases Protein Catabolism in Migratory Birds

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Science  09 Sep 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6048, pp. 1434-1436
DOI: 10.1126/science.1210449

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Although fat is the primary fuel for migratory flight in birds, protein is also used. Catabolism of tissue protein yields five times as much water per kilojoule as fat, and so one proposed function of protein catabolism is to maintain water balance during nonstop flights. To test the protein-for-water hypothesis, we flew Swainson’s thrushes (Catharus ustulatus) in a climatic wind tunnel under high- and low-humidity conditions at 18°C for up to 5 hours. Flight under dry conditions increased the rates of lean mass loss and endogenous water production and also increased plasma uric acid concentration. These data demonstrate that atmospheric humidity influences fuel composition in flight and suggest that protein deposition and catabolism during migration are, in part, a metabolic strategy to maintain osmotic homeostasis during flight.

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