Equatorial stonechats (Saxicola torquata axillaris) in Africa are seasonal breeders like their temperate-zone conspecifics (S.t. rubicola). Their annual cycle in gonadal size and function is controlled by an endogenous circannual rhythmicity that has been shown to run for up to 10 years in a constant equatorial photoperiod under laboratory conditions, with a period deviating from 12 months. In nature, however, this rhythm is synchronized with the actual year. Because photoperiod is essentially constant at the equator, it is likely that other environmental factors act as zeitgebers. The authors test whether food availability affects reproductive cycles of free-living East African stonechats. The authors offered supplemental food to the birds 2 months before the regular onset of the breeding season. Supplementally fed males started to sing and display earlier than males of control pairs that did not receive extra food. Although the supplemented food advanced the onset of the breeding season in the pairs that were fed, the onset of the postnuptial molt following the breeding season was not correspondingly shifted. Furthermore, in the year following the experiment, all pairs initiated breeding at the same time. The authors conclude that food availability does not act as a zeitgeber, but rather as a factor that modifies the timing of reproduction without affecting the underlying rhythmicity. The authors propose that this is adaptive under environmental conditions that are relatively constant within a given year but may vary considerably between years. The zeitgeber synchronizing the endogenous rhythmicity remains to be identified.
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