Indications of phenotypic plasticity in moulting birds: captive geese reveal adaptive changes in mineralisation of their long bones during wing moult

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Bone is continually undergoing cycles of apposition and resorption referred to as adaptive remodelling. We tested the hypothesis that captive moulting Barnacle Geese (Branta leucopsis) would show adaptive bone mineralisation during the flightless period of their annual flight feather moult, despite having never flown. The three leg bones showed selective changes in mineralisation in terms of mass and mineral content, while the wing bones did not change in mass or mineral content. The tibia/fibula was the only bone to also undergo significant changes in mass, increasing as moult progressed then decreasing significantly towards the end of moult. This was not a response to changing body mass. Instead, we propose that this is a response to the requirement for increased strength brought about by the significant increase in the force producing muscles that attach to the tibia. The femur and tarsometarsus showed the opposite trend, with mineral content decreasing significantly during mid-moult before increasing again at the end. These changes were also independent of changing body mass, suggesting instead that the calcium, or rather calcium derivatives, were mobilised for feather regrowth. This study demonstrates significant and selective adaptive natural changes in bone mass and mineralization that have not been previously demonstrated. That they should also occur in captive birds which show a decrease in locomotion during the wing moult period, suggests a high endogenous capacity for these changes.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1055-1061
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Ornithology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2011


  • Bone changes, Bone mineralisation, Mineral content, Barnacle Goose, Moult