Starvation and oil gland composition in Common Murres

The effects of starvation on the semi-volatile compounds of the uropygial gland in the Common Murre (Uria aalge)

Rayne Ellington-Lawrence

April 15, 2012
Dr. Peter Wimberger

Dr. John Hanson
University of Puget Sound


Preening is an important task for birds that maintains and preserves their feathers. It is during this time that they spread preen oil from the uropygial gland on to their feathers. Preen oil contains semi-volatile waxy esters, with hydrophobic properties, that prevents feather wetting. Starvation decreases triglyceride production. The production of preen oil waxes uses mechanisms similar to other bodily lipids. The effect of starvation on these esters was examined in the Common Murre. Acid catalyzed methanolysis was performed on preen oil samples from emaciated and healthy murres. This separated the waxy esters into their fatty acid and alcohol substituents. Gas Chromatography Mass Spectroscopy (GCMS) was used to identify and compare the fatty acids in emaciated and healthy murres. Starvation did not alter the morphology of the uropygial gland in the Common Murre. While there were some minor differences in the relative percentages of some fatty acids in emaciated and healthy birds, starvation caused no significant changes in the composition of preen oil waxes secreted by the uropygial gland. The waxes produced in preen oil may be so essential, that their production and composition are maintained until an emaciated bird dies of other complications. It is not likely that malnourished murres die as a result of lost hydrophobicity in their feathers caused by a change in their preen oil composition.