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Integr Comp Biol. 2010 Sep;50(3):336-45. doi: 10.1093/icb/icq097. Epub 2010 Jul 16.

Move that fatty acid: fuel selection and transport in migratory birds and bats.

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Department of Biology, Advanced Facility for Avian Research, University of Western Ontario, 1151 Richmond Street North, London, Ontario N6A5B7, Canada.


The metaphor of marathon running is inadequate to fully capture the magnitude of long-distance migratory flight of birds. In some respects a journey to the moon seems more appropriate. Birds have no access to supplementary water or nutrition during a multi-day flight, and they must carefully budget their body fat and protein stores to provide both fuel and life support. Fatty acid transport is crucial to successful non-stop migratory flight in birds. Although fat is the most energy-dense metabolic fuel, the insolubility of its component fatty acids makes them difficult to transport to working muscles fast enough to support the highly aerobic exercise required to fly. Recent evidence indicates that migratory birds compensate for this by expressing large amounts of fatty acid transport proteins on the membranes of the muscles (FAT/CD36 and FABPpm) and in the cytosol (H-FABP). Through endogenous mechanisms and/or diet, migratory birds may alter the fatty acid composition of the fat stores and muscle membranes to improve endurance during flight. Fatty acid chain length, degree of unsaturation, and placement of double bonds can affect the rate of mobilization of fatty acids from adipose tissue, utilization of fatty acids by muscles, and whole-animal performance. However, there is great uncertainty about how important fatty acid composition is to the success of migration or whether particular types of fatty acids (e.g., omega-3 or omega-6) are most beneficial. Migratory bats provide an interesting example of evolutionary convergence with birds, which may provide evidence for the generality of the bird model to the evolution of migration by flight in vertebrates. Yet only recently have attempts been made to study bat migration physiology. Many aspects of their fuel metabolism are predicted to be more similar to those of migrant birds than to those of non-flying mammals. Bats may be distinct from most birds in their potential to conserve energy by using torpor between flights, and in the behavioral and physiological trade-offs they may make between migration and reproduction, which often overlap.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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