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J Exp Biol. 2001 Jun;204(Pt 12):2167-73.

Time course and reversibility of changes in the gizzards of red knots alternately eating hard and soft food.

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  • 1Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), PO Box 59, 1790 AB Den Burg, Texel, The Netherlands.


The ability to change organ size reversibly can be advantageous to birds that perform long migrations. During winter, red knots (Calidris canutus) feed on shellfish and carry a muscular gizzard that weighs 10% of their body mass. Gizzard size decreases when these birds eat soft foods, e.g. while breeding in the tundra. We studied the reversibility and time course of such changes using ultrasonography. Two groups of shellfish-adapted knots (N=9 and N=10) were fed alternately a hard and a soft food type. Diet switches elicited rapid reversible changes. Switches from hard to soft food induced decreases to 60% of initial gizzard mass within 8.5 days, while switches to hard food induced increases in gizzard mass to 147% within 6.2 days. A third group of knots (N=11), adapted to soft food for more than 1 year, initially had very small gizzards (25% of the mass of shellfish-adapted gizzards), but showed a similar capacity to increase gizzard size when fed shellfish. This is the first non-invasive study showing rapid digestive organ adjustments in non-domesticated birds.

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