When tiny semipalmated sandpipers embark on their annual odyssey from the Canadian Arctic to their winter residences in South America, they set out on one of the world's longest migrations. On the way, the tiny birds stop off at the Bay of Fundy on the Canadian east coast, where they spend two weeks gorging on a superfood, Corophium volutator (mud shrimps), which have some of the highest levels of n-3 fatty acids (better known as omega-3 fatty acids) of any marine animal.
According to Jean-Michel Weber from the University of Ottawa, omega-3 fatty acids have some rather astonishing effects. In humans they reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and alleviate depression. But it was not their potential medicinal properties that intrigued Weber; it was their ability to increase aerobic capacity, much like endurance training. Could the sandpipers be building up for their endurance challenge by simply eating? All the evidence suggest so, but Weber needed to test the miraculous fatty acids' effects on less athletic birds, bobwhite quails, to be sure. Could he boost the couch potato quails' endurance by simply feeding them omega-3 fatty acids? Weber and his team publish their discovery that quails can get fit simply by eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids on 27 March 2009 in The Journal of Experimental Biology http://jeb.biologists.org.
Teaming up with student Simba Nagahuedi, Weber fed three groups of the sedentary quails a tightly regulated omega-3 diet of n-3 eicosapentaenoic acid, or n-3 docosahexaenoic acid, or a 50/50 mixture of the two oils for 6 weeks. Then Nagahuedi checked the quails' pectoral muscles to see if their capacity to consume oxygen to produce energy had improved. Measuring the activity levels of four oxidative enzymes the duo found that the enzymes' activity levels had increased by between 58 and 90% to levels normally only seen in the migrating sandpipers. Weber admits that
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The Company of Biologists