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J Biol Rhythms. 1996 Sep;11(3):196-207.

Food as a circadian Zeitgeber for house sparrows: the effect of different food access durations.

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Max-Planck-Institut für Verhaltensphysiologie, Andechs, Germany.


House sparrows (Passer domesticus) can synchronize their circadian rhythms of locomotion and feeding with times of periodic food availability. In contrast to most mammals, which synchronize only a specific part of their circadian system with feeding cycles and thus express two distinct activity components, house sparrows synchronize their circadian activity rhythms as a whole with the food zeitgeber. Previous results had indicated that feeding cycles act as comparatively weak zeitgebers for house sparrows. In the present study, therefore, we investigate whether feeding schedules are weak zeitgebers in general or whether their impact on the circadian system of the birds depends on the degree of food restriction. A detailed analysis of the synchronization pattern under the different experimental conditions should help to clarify whether house sparrows use a different mechanism for food-synchronization than mammals. House sparrows were kept in continuous dim light and exposed to different feeding schedules with daily food access durations ranging from 8 to 20 h. Many birds lost synchronization and exhibited free-running rhythms in locomotor and feeding activity when the daily food access duration was lengthened but became synchronized when the feeding duration was shortened. The interpretation that short food access durations represent stronger zeitgebers than long food access durations was supported by the occurrence of large negative phase-angle differences during long daily feeding schedules, contrasting with small and sometimes positive phase-angle differences under short food access durations. There were no indications that house sparrows possess a specific food-entrainable circadian oscillator as mammals do. Rather, periodic food availability seems to be a zeitgeber for the whole circadian system, which, hence, can be synchronized both by light and food. An explanation for such different mechanisms of food-synchronization is offered in the feeding ecology of these animals. Birds may evaluate the importance of a specific feeding schedule as a zeitgeber either from temporal information on the duration of the daily food access time or from energetic considerations. The phase-angle differences associated with the different feeding schedules and the maintenance of daily activity times may ensure an appropriate temporal integration of behavior with specific conditions. Non-synchronized birds exhibited masking-induced feeding activity, which might represent an alternative means of adjusting to feeding cycles when synchronization cannot occur.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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