Morphological and digestive adjustments buffer performance: How staging shorebirds cope with severe food declines

Shou-Dong Zhang, Zhijun Ma, Chi-Yeung Choi, He-Bo Peng, David S. Melville, Tian-Tian Zhao, Qing-Quan Bai, Wen-Liang Liu, Ying-Chi Chan, Jan A. van Gils, Theunis Piersma

OnderzoeksoutputAcademicpeer review

28 Citaten (Scopus)
167 Downloads (Pure)


Organisms cope with environmental stressors by behavioral, morphological, and physiological adjustments. Documentation of such adjustments in the wild provides information on the response space in nature and the extent to which behavioral and bodily adjustments lead to appropriate performance effects. Here we studied the morphological and digestive adjustments in a staging population of migrating Great Knots Calidris tenuirostris in response to stark declines in food abundance and quality at the Yalu Jiang estuarine wetland (northern Yellow Sea, China). At Yalu Jiang, from 2011 to 2017 the densities of intertidal mollusks, the food of Great Knots, declined 15-fold. The staple prey of Great Knots shifted from the relatively soft-shelled bivalve Potamocorbula laevis in 2011–2012 to harder-shelled mollusks such as the gastropod Umbonium thomasi in 2016–2017. The crushing of the mollusks in the gizzard would require a threefold to 11-fold increase in break force. This was partially resolved by a 15% increase in gizzard mass which would yield a 32% increase in shell processing capacity. The consumption of harder-shelled mollusks was also accompanied by reliance on regurgitates to excrete unbreakable parts of prey, rather than the usual intestinal voidance of shell fragments as feces. Despite the changes in digestive morphology and strategy, there was still an 85% reduction in intake rate in 2016–2017 compared with 2011–2012. With these morphological and digestive adjustments, the Great Knots remaining faithful to the staging site to a certain extent buffered the disadvantageous effects of dramatic food declines. However, compensation was not complete. Locally, birds will have had to extend foraging time and use a greater daily foraging range. This study offers a perspective on how individual animals may mitigate the effects of environmental change by morphological and digestive strategies and the limits to the response space of long-distance migrating shorebirds in the wild.
Originele taal-2English
Pagina's (van-tot)3868-3878
Aantal pagina's11
TijdschriftEcology and Evolution
Nummer van het tijdschrift7
Vroegere onlinedatum12-mrt.-2019
StatusPublished - apr.-2019

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