Journal of Comparative Physiology B

, Volume 187, Issue 2, pp 339–351 | Cite as

Modulation of digestive enzyme activities in the avian digestive tract in relation to diet composition and quality

  • Kevin D. Kohl
  • M. Eugenia Ciminari
  • Juan G. Chediack
  • James O. Leafloor
  • William H. Karasov
  • Scott R. McWilliams
  • Enrique Caviedes-Vidal
Original Paper


In nature, birds are faced with variable food sources that may differ in composition (protein vs. carbohydrates) and quality (highly digestible material vs. indigestible fiber). Studies in passerine birds and some commercial poultry demonstrate that the gastrointestinal tract can respond to varying diet composition and quality by changing morphology and/or activities of digestive enzymes. However, studies in additional avian species are warranted to understand generalities of these trends. We first fed juvenile mallards (Anas platyrhynchos), chickens (Gallus gallus), and quails (Coturnix coturnix) on either high-carbohydrate or high-protein diets. For the most part, birds fed the high-carbohydrate diet had higher small intestinal and cecal disaccharidase activities (maltase and sucrase). However, only mallards exhibited higher small intestinal aminopeptidase-N (APN) activities when fed the high-protein diet. These results differ from passerine birds, which largely modulate small intestinal proteases, but not disaccharidases. In another trial, we fed Canada geese (Branta canadensis) diets that varied in both their protein and fiber concentrations for approximately 3.5 months. Birds fed the high-fiber diets had significantly longer small intestines and caeca compared to those fed low-fiber diets. Additionally, geese fed the high-fiber diets exhibited lower mass-specific activities of small intestinal sucrase, and higher activities of APN when summed across the small intestine and ceca. Similar to the avian species above, geese fed the high-protein diets did not exhibit flexibility in their small intestinal APN activities. Overall, these experiments demonstrate that responsiveness of the avian digestive tract to diet composition may have phylogenetic or ecological constraints. Studies on other avian taxa are needed to understand these patterns.


Birds Digestion Digestive physiology Fiber Maltase 



We thank the following individuals for their help in collecting eggs in Akimiski Island: Ken Abraham, Dan Byers, Mike Donovan, Bert French, Mike Hill, Leslie Jaeger, Cynthia Kapke, Art Smith, Chris Swannell, Scott Taylor, Gary Tupling, and Roel Teunisson. We wish to thank Ciaran Hannan, Chris Jungbluth, Ann Normington (Voek), and Bettina Potts for their assistance with care and measurements of birds. Funding was in part provided by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and state and federal agencies of the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation (IBN-9318675 to W.H.K. and DBI 1400456 to K.D.K.) and the Universidad Nacional de San Luis—Ciencia y Técnica Grant 2-0814 and CONICET PIP 2015-834 to E.C.-V.

Supplementary material

360_2016_1037_MOESM1_ESM.pdf (301 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (PDF 301 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesVanderbilt UniversityNashvilleUSA
  2. 2.Instituto Multidisciplinario de Investigaciones Biológicas de San LuisUniversidad Nacional de San LuisSan LuisArgentina
  3. 3.Departamento de Bioquímica y Ciencias Biológicas, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y TécnicasUniversidad Nacional de San LuisSan LuisArgentina
  4. 4.Canadian Wildlife ServiceWinnipegCanada
  5. 5.Department of Forestry and Wildlife EcologyUniversity of Wisconsin MadisonMadisonUSA
  6. 6.Department of Natural Resources ScienceUniversity of Rhode IslandKingstonUSA

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