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Several species of diurnal birds are nocturnal migrants. The activation of nocturnal activity requires major physiological changes, which are essentially unknown. Previous work has shown that during migratory periods nocturnal migrants have reduced night-time levels of melatonin. Since this hormone is involved in the modulation of day-night rhythms, it is a good candidate regulator of nocturnal migratory activity. We studied whether melatonin levels change when nocturnally active blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla) are experimentally transferred from a migratory to a non-migratory state. We simulated a long migratory flight by depriving birds of food for 2 days, and a refuelling stopover by subsequently re-administering food. Such a regimen is known to induce a reduction in migratory restlessness ("Zugunruhe") in the night following food reintroduction. The experiments were performed in both autumn and spring using blackcaps taken from their breeding grounds (Sweden) and their wintering areas (Kenya). In autumn, the food regimen induced a suppression of Zugunruhe and an increase in melatonin in the night following food reintroduction. In spring, the effects of the treatment were qualitatively similar but their extent depended on the amount of body-fat reserves. This work shows that the reduction of night-time melatonin during migratory periods is functionally related to nocturnal migration, and that fat reserves influence the response of the migratory programme to food deprivation.
Adipose Tissue/physiology Analysis of Variance Animal Migration/physiology* Animals Flight, Animal/physiology* Food Deprivation Kenya Melatonin/metabolism* Photoperiod Seasons Songbirds/metabolism Songbirds/physiology* Sweden