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Ciba Found Symp. 1985;117:93-105.

Photoperiodism in birds.


Birds show a circadian rhythm in melatonin secretion and, as expected, the pattern of output changes with photoperiod. Somewhat surprisingly then, in view of the mechanisms in mammals, birds do not seem to use this seasonal message in the photoperiodic control of reproduction. Some further experiments are needed, however, because in birds the pineal gland is not the only source of melatonin. Another difference from mammals is that birds detect the photoperiodic light not with the retina but by brain photoreceptors, which probably lie in the hypothalamus. An action spectrum for these receptors has now been obtained for the quail and this shows a peak absorption at 492 nm, suggesting that the photoreceptor is rhodopsin-based. The sensitivity of the brain receptors to 500 nm light was calculated at 2 X 10(4) photons mm-2s-1. For light to induce the photoperiodic response it must be interpreted by the bird's clock as a long day. This happens if the light falls 12-20 h after dawn and coincides with a rhythm of photosensitivity. The subsequent neuroendocrine response to the light signal is both precise and relatively long-term. A single 4 h light pulse initiates a wave of gonadotropin secretion lasting for 10 days. The light stimulus can be replaced by a brief (2 min) daily electrical stimulus given to the hypothalamus 10-12 h after dawn. Over the next few years it should be possible to disentangle further the neural processes involved.

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