Animals can cope with dehydration in a myriad of ways, both behaviorally and physiologically. The oxidation of protein produces more metabolic water per kilojoule than that of fat or carbohydrate, and it is well established that birds increase protein catabolism in response to high rates of water loss. However, the fate of amino acids mobilized in response to water restriction has not been explicitly determined. While protein catabolism releases bound water, we hypothesized that water-restricted birds would also oxidize the resulting amino acids, producing additional water as a product of oxidative phosphorylation. To test this, we fed captive house sparrows (Passer domesticus) 13C-labeled leucine for 9 weeks to label endogenous proteins. We conducted weekly trials during which we measured the physiological response to water restriction as changes in lean mass, fat mass, metabolism and the enrichment of 13C in exhaled CO213Cbreath). If water-restricted birds catabolized proteins and oxidized the resulting amino acids, we expected to simultaneously observe greater lean mass loss and elevated δ13Cbreath relative to control birds. We found that water-restricted birds catabolized more lean tissue and also had enriched δ13Cbreath in response to water restriction, supporting our hypothesis. δ13Cbreath, however, varied with metabolic rate and the length of the water restriction period, suggesting that birds may spare protein when water balance can be achieved using other physiological strategies.

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