Drinking problems on a 'simple' diet : physiological convergence in nectar-feeding birds

08 Feb 2017

Regulation of energy and water are by necessity closely linked in avian nectarivores, because the easily available sugars in nectar are accompanied by an excess of water but few electrolytes. In general, there is convergence in morphology and physiology between three main lineages of avian nectarivores that have evolved on different continents - the hummingbirds, sunbirds and honeyeaters. These birds show similar dependence of sugar preferences on nectar concentration, high intestinal sucrase activity and rapid absorption of hexoses via mediated and paracellular routes. There are differences, however, in how these lineages deal with energy challenges, as well as processing the large volumes of preformed water ingested in nectar. While hummingbirds rely on varying renal water reabsorption, the passerine nectarivores modulate intestinal water absorption during water loading, thus reducing the impact on the kidneys. Hummingbirds do not generally cope with salt loading, and have renal morphology consistent with their ability to produce copious dilute urine; by contrast, as well as being able to deal with dilute diets, honeyeaters and sunbirds are more than capable of dealing with moderately high levels of added electrolytes. And finally, in response to energy challenge, hummingbirds readily resort to torpor, while the passerines show renal and digestive responses that allow them to deal with short-term fasts and rapidly restore energy balance without using torpor. In conclusion, sunbirds and honeyeaters demonstrate a degree of physiological plasticity in dealing with digestive and renal challenges of their nectar diet, while hummingbirds appear to be more constrained by this diet.