Mitochondrial function is fundamental to organismal performance, health and fitness – especially during energetically challenging events, such as migration. With this investigation, we evaluated mitochondrial sensitivity to ecologically relevant stressors. We focused on an iconic migrant, the North American monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), and examined the effects of two stressors: 7 days of food deprivation and infection by the protozoan parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha (known to reduce survival and flight performance). We measured whole-animal resting metabolic rate (RMR) and peak flight metabolic rate, and mitochondrial respiration of isolated mitochondria from the flight muscles. Food deprivation reduced mass-independent RMR and peak flight metabolic rate, whereas infection did not. Fed monarchs used mainly lipids in flight (respiratory quotient 0.73), but the respiratory quotient dropped in food-deprived individuals, possibly indicating switching to alternative energy sources, such as ketone bodies. Food deprivation decreased mitochondrial maximum oxygen consumption but not basal respiration, resulting in lower respiratory control ratio (RCR). Furthermore, food deprivation decreased mitochondrial complex III activity, but increased complex IV activity. Infection did not result in any changes in these mitochondrial variables. Mitochondrial maximum respiration rate correlated positively with mass-independent RMR and flight metabolic rate, suggesting a link between mitochondria and whole-animal performance. In conclusion, low food availability negatively affects mitochondrial function and flight performance, with potential implications for migration, fitness and population dynamics. Although previous studies have reported poor flight performance in infected monarchs, we found no differences in physiological performance, suggesting that reduced flight capacity may be due to structural differences or low energy stores.

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