Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) feed predominantly on fruits that are rich in simple sugars and low in nitrogen, supplementing this diet with arthropod prey during the summer months as well as flowers and tree sap in springtime. In contrast, thrushes feed extensively on fatty, protein-rich invertebrate prey, supplemented with sugary and lipid-rich fruits. Simple sugars and fats are digested and/or absorbed by distinctly different physiological mechanisms, which suggests the possibility of contrasting digestive strategies in animals specialized to diets containing one of these two energy sources. In this study, we quantified enzymatic activity of three membrane-bound intestinal enzymes of cedar waxwings and five species of thrushes to explore this aspect of their digestive physiology. These enzymes catalyze the final steps in the digestion of carbohydrates (sucrase-isomaltase and maltase-glucoamylase) and protein (aminopeptidase-N). The two carbohydrases are homologous enzymes with overlapping functions; both enzymes catalyze the hydrolysis of maltase and isomaltase. The membrane-bound digestive enzyme systems that we described for cedar waxwings and thrushes can be explained by the particular nutrients contained within their respective natural diets. Consistent with previous work, cedar waxwings displayed intestinal sucrase activity, whereas thrushes did not. Correspondingly, cedar waxwings eat some foods containing sucrose, whereas thrushes do not. Sucrase-isomaltase conferred all maltase and isomaltase activity in cedar waxwings. In contrast, all maltase and isomaltase activity in thrushes was necessarily sucrase independent, which indicated the presence of maltase-glucoamylase. The absence of sucrase-independent maltase activity in cedar waxwings suggests that sucrase-isomaltase obviates the need for maltase-glucoamylase. Indeed, total maltase and isomaltase activities were much higher in cedar waxwings than in thrushes. Neither waxwings nor thrushes eat starchy foods; sucrase-isomaltase in waxwings and maltase-glucoamylase in thrushes probably function in digesting glycogen in animal foods. We suggest that digestive traits associated with specialization to monosaccharide-rich fruits (lack of a grinding gizzard) by frugivorous waxwings and thrushes may prevent utilization of starchy seeds. Total aminopeptidase-N activity in cedar waxwings was indistinguishable from the allometric pattern among thrush species, but the distribution of this enzyme along the intestines of waxwings and thrushes was distinctly different, which demonstrates that total enzyme activity can be insufficient as a descriptor of the functional activity of brush border enzymes. Aminopeptidase-N activity peaked in the anterior part of the intestines of thrushes and in the terminal portion of the intestines of waxwings, which suggests contrasting strategies for protein digestion from fatty versus sugary diets, respectively.
Physiological and Biochemical Zoology
The original publication is available at http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/322156