Optimal gut size of small birds and its dependence on environmental and physiological parameters

Adnane Ez-zizi*, John M. McNamara, Gaurav Malhotra, Alasdair I. Houston

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)
287 Downloads (Pure)


Most optimal foraging models assume that the foraging behaviour of small birds depends on a single state variable, their energy reserves in the form of stored fat. Here, we include a second state variable—the contents of the bird's gut—to investigate how a bird should optimise its gut size to minimise its long-term mortality, depending on the availability of food, the size of meal and the bird's digestive constraints. Our results show that (1) the current level of fat is never less important than gut contents in determining the bird's survival; (2) there exists a unique optimal gut size, which is determined by a trade-off between the energetic gains and costs of maintaining a large digestive system; (3) the optimal gut size increases as the bird's digestive cycle becomes slower, allowing the bird to store undigested food; (4) the critical environmental factor for determining the optimal gut size is the mass of food found in a successful foraging effort (“meal size”). We find that when the environment is harsh, it is optimal for the bird to maintain a gut that is larger than the size of a meal. However, the optimal size of the gut in rich environments exactly matches the meal size (i.e. the mass of food that the optimal gut can carry is exactly the mass of food that can be obtained in a successful foraging attempt).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)357-366
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Theoretical Biology
Early online date18 May 2018
Publication statusPublished - 7 Oct 2018


  • Energy reserves
  • Optimal foraging strategy
  • Predation
  • Starvation
  • Stochastic dynamic programming


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