Omega-3 fatty acids accelerate fledging in an avian marine predator: a potential role of cognition

Wilson, David R. and Lamarre, Jessika and Cheema, Sukhinder K. and Robertson, Gregory J. (2021) Omega-3 fatty acids accelerate fledging in an avian marine predator: a potential role of cognition. Journal of Experimental Biology, 224 (4). ISSN 0022-0949

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Consuming omega-3 fatty acids (n-3 LCPUFAs) during development improves cognition in mammals, but the effect remains untested in other taxa. In aquatic ecosystems, n-3 LCPUFAs are produced by phytoplankton and bioaccumulate in the food web. Alarmingly, the warming and acidification of aquatic systems caused by climate change impair n-3 LCPUFA production, with an anticipated decrease of 80% by the year 2100. We tested whether n-3 LCPUFA consumption affects the physiology, morphology, behaviour and cognition of the chicks of a top marine predator, the ring-billed gull. Using a colony with little access to n-3 LCPUFAs, we supplemented siblings from 22 fenced nests with contrasting treatments from hatching until fledging; one sibling received n-3 LCPUFA-rich fish oil and the other, a control sucrose solution without n-3 LCPUFAs. Halfway through the nestling period, half the chicks receiving fish oil were switched to the sucrose solution to test whether n-3 LCPUFA intake remains crucial past the main growth phase (chronic versus transient treatments). Upon fledging, n-3 LCPUFAs were elevated in the blood and brains of chicks receiving the chronic treatment, but were comparable to control levels among those receiving the transient treatment. Across the entire sample, chicks with elevated n-3 LCPUFAs in their tissues fledged earlier despite their morphology and activity levels being unrelated to fledging age. Fledging required chicks to escape fences encircling their nest. We therefore interpret fledging age as a possible indicator of cognition, with chicks with improved cognition fledging earlier. These results provide insight into whether declining dietary n-3 LCPUFAs will compromise top predators' problem-solving skills, and thus their ability to survive in a rapidly changing world.

Item Type: Article
Item ID: 16080
Keywords: Bird, Brain development, Essential fatty acid, Docosahexaenoic acid, Eicosapentaenoic acid, Aquatic ecosystem
Department(s): Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of > Psychology
Science, Faculty of > Psychology
Date: 24 February 2021
Date Type: Publication
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
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