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Specialisation in Extremely Unbalanced Food: Possibilities and Limits of Its Investigation Exclusively By Functional Morphology

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image of Netherlands Journal of Zoology
For more content, see Archives Néerlandaises de Zoologie (Vol 1-17) and Animal Biology (Vol 53 and onwards).

Intensive comparative study on alimentary systems has shown that not all organ structures involved in digestion are equally suitable for functional-morphological analyses. This was especially apparent in our latest studies of food specialists e.g. several species of the songbird families, Estrildidae and Ploceidac which can exist exclusively on grass seeds with a starch content of approximately 90%. This is possible because these species have developed all structures involved in protein digestion to be able to utilise even the vestigial amounts of nitrogen compounds present. However, many more seeds must be consumed than are needed for energy metabolism. Consequently, a regulation mechanism has evolved which enables the excess carbohydrate to be eliminated. Study of this specialisation has clearly shown that functions which are associated with specific tissues can be successfully examined and compared using morphological criteria; e.g., secretion production or the absorption of nutritious molecules through epithelial cells. Both of these functions are directly dependent on the size of the epithelial surface which can be considerably increased by histoarchitectonic modification. In studying carbohydrate regulation, however, we had to rely exclusively on biochemical analysis of food and excreta. These analyses showed that Estrildidae and Ploccidae regulate the exact amount of monosaccharides for absorption exclusively by the amount of the provided enzymes. This is in contrast to some similarly investigated fruit-eating pigeons which achieve the fine adjustment by direct regulation of the transport mechanism through the membrane of the microvilli.

Affiliations: 1: Zoological Museum, University of Zürich Winterthurerstr. 190 CH-8057 Zürich, Switzerland


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