Sugar and nitrogen digestive processing does not explain the specialized relationship between euphonias and low-quality fruits
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In the Neotropical region, euphonias (Euphonia spp., Fringillidae) are the quintessential example of specialized bird frugivores, making the bulk of feeding visits to certain mistletoes (Phoradendron spp., Santalaceae) and epiphytes in the genus Rhipsalis (Cactaceae), whose fruits have high water and low sugar and protein concentrations. Surprisingly, a mechanistic explanation for such specialized, otherwise rare, relationships is lacking. Using captive birds and artificial diets, we contrasted euphonias with frugivorous tanagers in the genus Thraupis (Thraupidae), which rarely eats Rhipsalis fruits, to test the hypothesis that the digestive capacity of euphonias entails them to exploit such low-energy fruits. We expected that compensatory feeding in response to decreasing energy density would occur only in euphonias, whose higher reliance on fruits would entail a lower nitrogen requirement than the tanagers. Euphonias and tanagers were both able to compensate energy intake as sugar density decreased, and both species had the same mass-corrected energy intake at any given sugar concentration. Similarly, euphonias and tanagers did not differ in mass-corrected maintenance nitrogen requirement. Therefore, the physiological traits we investigated do not explain euphonias' specialization on Rhipsalis fruits. The fast rates of fruit passage typical of specialized avian frugivores as euphonias that entail the processing of a large volume of fruits and the putative better abilities of such birds to deal with secondary compounds likely present in Rhipsalis fruits are other possible mechanisms that should be considered in future studies to unveil the mechanisms underlying the intriguing specialized relationships between euphonias and certain fruits.