The oxidative debt of fasting: evidence for short to medium-term costs of advanced fasting in adult king penguins

Quentin Schull (Corresponding Author), Vincent A. Viblanc, Antoine Stier, Hédi Saadaoui, Emilie Lefol, François Criscuolo, Pierre Bize, Jean-Patrice Robin

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In response to prolonged periods of fasting, animals have evolved metabolic adaptations helping to mobilize body reserves and/or reducing metabolic rate, to ensure a longer usage of reserves. Those metabolic changes can however be associated with higher exposure to oxidative stress, raising the question how species that naturally fast during their life cycle avoid an accumulation of oxidative damage over time. King penguins repeatedly cope with fasting periods up to several weeks. Here we investigated how adult male penguins deal with oxidative stress after an experimentally induced moderate fasting period (PII) or an advanced fasting period (PIII). After fasting in captivity, birds were released to forage at sea. We measured plasmatic oxidative stress on the same individuals at the start and end of the fasting period and when they returned from foraging at sea. We found an increase in activity of the antioxidant enzyme superoxide dismutase along with fasting. However, PIII individuals showed higher oxidative damage at the end of the fast compared to PII individuals. When they returned from re-feeding at sea, all birds had recovered their initial body mass and exhibited low levels of oxidative damage. Notably, levels of oxidative damage after the foraging trip were correlated to the rate of mass gain at sea in PIII individuals but not in PII individuals. Altogether, our results suggest that fasting induces a transitory exposure to oxidative stress and that effort to recover in body mass after an advanced fasting period may be a neglected carry-over cost of fasting.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3284-3293
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number20
Early online date19 Oct 2016
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016

Bibliographical note

This research was funded by the French Polar Institute (IPEV–Research Program 119) and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS-INEE). We are especially grateful to Dominic L. Cram and one anonymous reviewer for helpful comments on the paper. Field logistic support was provided by Terres Australes et Antarctiques Françaises. QS was funded by a doctoral fellowship from the Ministère Français de l’Education Supérieur et de la Recherche.


  • fasting
  • oxidative stress
  • king penguin
  • foraging effort
  • re-feeding signal
  • hormesis


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