Journal of Ornithology

, Volume 152, Issue 4, pp 1055–1061 | Cite as

Indications of phenotypic plasticity in moulting birds: captive geese reveal adaptive changes in mineralisation of their long bones during wing moult

  • Steven J. PortugalEmail author
  • Patrick J. Butler
  • Jonathan A. Green
  • Phillip Cassey
Short Note


Bone is continually undergoing cycles of apposition and resorption referred to as adaptive remodelling. We tested the hypothesis that captive moulting Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) would show adaptive bone mineralisation during the flightless period of their annual flight feather moult, despite having never flown. The three leg bones showed selective changes in mineralisation in terms of mass and mineral content, while the wing bones did not change in mass or mineral content. The tibia/fibula was the only bone to also undergo significant changes in mass, increasing as moult progressed then decreasing significantly towards the end of moult. This was not a response to changing body mass. Instead, we propose that this is a response to the requirement for increased strength brought about by the significant increase in the force producing muscles that attach to the tibia. The femur and tarsometarsus showed the opposite trend, with mineral content decreasing significantly during mid-moult before increasing again at the end. These changes were also independent of changing body mass, suggesting instead that the calcium, or rather calcium derivatives, were mobilised for feather regrowth. This study demonstrates significant and selective adaptive natural changes in bone mass and mineralization that have not been previously demonstrated. That they should also occur in captive birds which show a decrease in locomotion during the wing moult period, suggests a high endogenous capacity for these changes.


Bone mineralisation Barnacle Goose Bone changes Mineral content Moult 


Knochengewebe macht fortwährende Zyklen von Aufbau und Abbau durch, die als adaptive Remodellierung bezeichnet werden. Wir haben die Hypothese getestet, dass in Gefangenschaft gehaltene mausernde Weißwangengänse (Branta leucopsis) während der flugunfähigen Phase ihrer jährlichen Flugfedermauser adaptive Knochenmineralisation zeigen, obwohl sie niemals geflogen sind. Die drei Beinknochen zeigten selektive Veränderungen der Mineralisation bezüglich Masse und Mineralgehalt, während sich Masse und Mineralgehalt der Flügelknochen nicht änderten. Der Unterschenkelknochen war der einzige Knochen, der auch eine signifikante Änderung seiner Gesamtmasse erfuhr, die im Verlauf der Mauser zunächst anstieg und dann zum Ende der Mauser hin abnahm. Dies war nicht auf Veränderungen der Körpermasse zurückzuführen. Stattdessen schlagen wir vor, dass es damit zusammenhängt, dass dieser Knochen stabiler werden muss, da sich die am Schienbein ansetzenden Kraft produzierenden Muskeln vergrößern. Oberschenkel und Tarsometatarsus offenbarten den entgegengesetzten Trend—der Mineralgehalt nahm in der Mitte der Mauserperiode signifikant ab und dann gegen Ende wieder zu. Diese Veränderungen waren ebenfalls unabhängig von Änderungen der Körpermasse und deuten stattdessen darauf hin, dass Kalzium oder eher Kalziumderivate für das Federwachstum mobilisiert wurden. Diese Studie zeigt signifikante und selektive adaptive natürliche Veränderungen von Knochenmasse und -mineralisation, die zuvor nicht nachgewiesen worden sind. Dass diese Veränderungen auch bei in Gefangenschaft gehaltenen Vögeln auftreten, die sich während der Flügelmauser weniger fortbewegen, deutet auf eine hohe endogene Kapazität für diese Veränderungen hin.



We are grateful to Jo Cooper and Golo Maurer for processing bone samples and to Amy Peters for providing line drawings. We thank the following for assistance with the geese: Alan Gardner, David Gardiner, Pete Jones, Julia Myatt, Susannah Thorpe and Craig White. We are also grateful to the two anonymous reviewers who provided helpful comments. The work was part-funded by a BBSRC studentship to S.J.P. and completed while S.J.P. was a Leverhulme Trust postdoctoral fellow.


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Copyright information

© Dt. Ornithologen-Gesellschaft e.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Steven J. Portugal
    • 1
    • 3
    Email author
  • Patrick J. Butler
    • 1
  • Jonathan A. Green
    • 2
  • Phillip Cassey
    • 1
    • 4
  1. 1.Centre for Ornithology, School of BiosciencesUniversity of BirminghamBirminghamUK
  2. 2.School of Biological SciencesUniversity of LiverpoolLiverpoolUK
  3. 3.Structure and Motion LabRoyal Veterinary CollegeHatfieldUK
  4. 4.School of Earth and Environmental SciencesThe University of AdelaideAdelaideAustralia

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