How a woodpecker that feasts on ants lost its taste for the sweetness of sap

Sweet sap, savory ants
Great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). By repurposing their savory receptors, woodpeckers are able to detect sugar in sap, nectar or fruit. Credit: Jan Andersson (Macaulay Library ML211906341)

Many mammals have a sweet tooth, but birds lost their sweet receptor during evolution. Although hummingbirds and songbirds independently repurposed their savory receptor to sense sugars, how other birds taste sweet is unclear. Now, an international team lead by researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence (in foundation) shows that woodpeckers also regained sweet taste. Interestingly, wrynecks, specialized ant-eating woodpeckers, selectively reversed this gain through a simple and unexpected change in the receptor. These results demonstrate a novel mechanism of sensory reversion and highlight how sensory systems adapt to the dietary needs of different species.

Birds, the descendants of carnivorous dinosaurs, lack part of the sweet receptor found in mammals. This should leave them insensitive to sugars. However, recent studies have shown that both hummingbirds and songbirds have regained the ability to sense sugar by repurposing their savory receptor to now detect carbohydrates in fruits and nectar. How other sense sugars, and the extent to which taste receptor responses track the immense dietary diversity of birds, is unclear. To investigate this question, Julia Cramer and Maude Baldwin from the Research Group Evolution of Sensory Systems and colleagues from other universities focused on woodpeckers. Although primarily insectivorous, this group of birds also contains multiple species that include sugar-rich sap, nectar, and fruits in their diets.

Using behavioral tests of wild birds, Baldwin's group showed that woodpeckers clearly prefer sugar and over water. Surprisingly, wrynecks—a member of the woodpecker group whose diet is almost exclusively composed of ants—displayed preferences for amino acids but not sugars. "Our next question was whether the observed sugar preference is mirrored by the birds' receptors," recaps Baldwin.

Sweet sap, savory ants
Acorn woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) often visit hummingbird feeders to drink sugar solutions. Credit: Jonathan Strandjord (Macaulay Library ML341302151)

Common ancestor possessed sugar receptor

Functional analyses of taste receptors confirmed that woodpecker receptors were sensitive to sugars, whereas those of wrynecks were not. Interestingly, ancestral reconstructions indicated that the of wrynecks and woodpeckers already possessed a modified savory receptor capable of responding to sugars. "This finding unveiled a third case of independent sugar-sensing evolution via modification of the savory receptor in birds," says Cramer, the study's first author. "Yet, what was even more exciting was the implication that wrynecks subsequently lost the receptor's new function."

Cramer's meticulous dissection of differences between wryneck and woodpecker receptors revealed unexpectedly that changes in only a in the wryneck receptor selectively turned off sugar-sensing: the birds kept their ability to taste savory, which is likely important for insect-specialist birds that consume a protein-rich diet.

Sweet sap, savory ants
Wrynecks (Jynx torquilla) specialize on an ant-based diet and have lost their sugar-sensing ability. Credit: Wouter Van Gasse (Macaulay Library ML329411951)

These results trace an in which an early gain of sugar sensing in woodpeckers —possibly arising in an earlier ancestor and therefore older than themselves—was followed by its reversion when the wryneck receptor was later altered. "We were very surprised to find that this reversion is caused by changes in only one single amino acid, acting as a molecular switch to selectively regulate sugar sensitivity in wrynecks," explains Cramer. "Unexpectedly, the result of this small change is that wrynecks are now again unable to detect in their food but have retained the receptor's ability to gather information on specific amino acid content. This makes a lot of sense when most of your diet is made up of ants."

Further investigation will be required to describe how specific changes in taste receptors, and in other physiological and sensory systems, are related to the rich dietary diversity across birds.

The research was published in Current Biology.

More information: Julia F. Cramer et al, A single residue confers selective loss of sugar sensing in wrynecks, Current Biology (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2022.07.059

Journal information: Current Biology

Provided by Max Planck Society

Citation: How a woodpecker that feasts on ants lost its taste for the sweetness of sap (2022, August 19) retrieved 1 October 2023 from
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