Encoding time of day and time of year by the avian circadian pacemaking system

Roland Brandstaetter

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61 Citations (Scopus)


The most important zeitgeber for seasonal rhythmicity of physiology and behaviour in birds is the annual cycle of photoperiod. Regulatory mechanisms are less well understood in birds than in mammals since photic information can be perceived by photoreceptors in the retina and the pineal gland, as well as in the brain, and photoperiodic time measurement might be performed with reference to at least three autonomous circadian systems, the retina, the pineal gland and a hypothalamic oscillator. In many bird species, the pineal melatonin rhythm plays a central role in circadian organization. Durations of elevated melatonin in the blood reflect night length when animals are kept under natural photoperiodic conditions, as well as under different light/dark schedules in the laboratory. In the house sparrow, time of year is encoded in a particular melatonin signal, being short in duration and high in amplitude in long photoperiods and being long in duration and low in amplitude in short photoperiods, independent of whether the light zeitgeber is natural or artificial or varies in strength. Specific features of the melatonin signal are retained in vivo as well as in vitro when birds or isolated pineal glands are transferred to constant conditions. To regulate daily and seasonal changes of behaviour and physiology, melatonin may act at various target sites, including a complex hypothalamic oscillator that, unlike that in mammals, is not confined to a single cell group in the house sparrow. There is increasing evidence that interactions between two or more components of the songbird circadian pacemaking system are essential to encode and store biologically meaningful information about time, and thus provide the basis for photoperiodic time measurements and after effects in birds.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)398-404
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Neuroendocrinology
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2003


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