Kristen J. DeMoranville, Keely R. Corder, Angelica Hamilton, David E. Russell, Janice M. Huss, and Paul J. Schaeffer

Phenotypic flexibility across the annual cycle allows birds to adjust to fluctuating ecological demands. Varying energetic demands associated with time of year have been demonstrated to drive metabolic and muscle plasticity in birds, but it remains unclear what molecular mechanisms control this flexibility. We sampled gray catbirds at five stages across their annual cycle: tropical overwintering (January), northward spring (late) migration (early May), breeding (mid June), the fall pre-migratory period (early August) and southward fall (early) migration (end September). Across the catbird’s annual cycle, cold-induced metabolic rate (VO2summit) was highest during migration and lowest during tropical wintering. Flight muscles exhibited significant hypertrophy and/or hyperplasia during fall migratory periods compared with breeding and the fall pre-migratory period. Changes in heart mass were driven by the tropical wintering stage, when heart mass was lowest. Mitochondrial content of the heart and pectoralis remained constant across the annual cycle as quantified by aerobic enzyme activities (CS, CCO), as did lipid catabolic capacity (HOAD). In the pectoralis, transcription factors PPARα, PPAR and ERRβ, coactivators PGC-1α and β, and genes encoding proteins associated with fat uptake (FABPpm, Plin3) were unexpectedly upregulated in the tropical wintering stage, whereas those involved in fatty acid oxidation (ATGL, LPL, MCAD) were downregulated, suggesting a preference for fat storage over utilization. Transcription factors and coactivators were synchronously upregulated during pre-migration and fall migration periods in the pectoralis but not the heart, suggesting that these pathways are important in preparation for and during early migration to initiate changes to phenotypes that facilitate long-distance migration.

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