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Performance-enhancing role of dietary fatty acids in a long-distance migrant shorebird: the semipalmated sandpiper
Dominique Maillet, Jean-Michel Weber


At the end of summer, semipalmated sandpipers (Calidris pusilla) traveling from the Arctic stop in the Bay of Fundy (east coast of Canada) to build large fat reserves before a non-stop flight to South America. During a 2-week stopover, the body mass of this small shorebird is doubled (∼20 g to 40 g) by feeding on a burrowing amphipod, Corophium volutator, that contains unusually high levels of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA). In mammals, high n-3 PUFA content of membrane phospholipids (PL) is linked to improved exercise performance due to increased membrane fluidity that accelerates transmembrane lipid transport. We hypothesized that dietary n-3 PUFA could be used as a natural `performance-enhancing substance' by semipalmated sandpipers to prepare their flight muscles for migration. Also, PUFA stored as fuel in neutral lipids (NL) can be mobilized more quickly than saturated fatty acids, but they contain less energy per unit mass. It is therefore unclear whether dietary fatty acids are modified before storage. Birds were collected at various stages of fat loading to examine changes in the composition of tissue PL (membranes) and NL (fuel stores). Results show that dietary n-3 PUFA are incorporated in tissue lipids in less than 2 weeks. During the stopover, the double bond index of muscle PL increases by 25% and the fatty acid profiles of both muscle PL and adipose NL converge with that of the diet. However, >50% of dietary n-3 PUFA are converted to other fatty acids before storage, mainly to oleate (18:1), possibly because monounsaturates offer a compromise between high energy density and ease of mobilization. This study shows that long-distance migrant birds can (1) use natural diets rich in specific lipids to prime flight muscles for endurance exercise, and (2) modify dietary fatty acids before storing them as fuel.

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