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Urban-like night illumination reduces melatonin release in European blackbirds (Turdus merula): implications of city life for biological time-keeping of songbirds

Davide M Dominoni123*, Wolfgang Goymann4, Barbara Helm3 and Jesko Partecke12

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Migration and Immuno-ecology, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Radolfzell, Germany

2 Department of Biology, University of Konstanz, Konstanz, Germany

3 Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK

4 Department of Behavioural Neurobiology, Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, Seewiesen, Germany

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Frontiers in Zoology 2013, 10:60  doi:10.1186/1742-9994-10-60

Published: 3 October 2013



Artificial light-at-night is known to affect a broad array of behaviours and physiological processes. In urbanized bird species, light-at-night advances important biological rhythms such as daily cycles of activity/rest and timing of reproduction, but our knowledge of the underlying physiological mechanisms is limited. Given its role as chronobiological signal, melatonin is a strong candidate for mediating the effects of light-at-night.


We exposed urban and rural European blackbirds (Turdus merula) to two light treatments equal in photoperiod but with different light intensities at night. The control group was exposed to 0.0001 lux (almost darkness), while the experimental group was exposed to 0.3 lux at night, simulating conditions recorded previously on free-living urban blackbirds. We obtained diel profiles of plasma melatonin for all birds in summer (July) and winter (January), while simultaneously recording locomotor activity. Daily patterns of melatonin concentrations were clearly affected by light-at-night in both seasons. In winter, melatonin concentrations of light-at-night birds were lower in the early and late night than in those of birds kept in darkness. In summer, melatonin concentrations of the light-at-night birds were lower through all night compared to birds kept in darkness. Locomotor activity in light-at-night birds was overall higher than in control individuals, both during the day and at night, and it increased sharply before dawn. In winter, the amount of activity before dawn in the light-at-night group correlated with changes in melatonin from midnight to late night: the greater the decrease in melatonin, the greater the amount of pre-dawn activity. Urban and rural birds responded similarly to light-at-night with respect to melatonin, but differed in their behaviour, with rural birds showing more locomotor activity than urban counterparts.


This study points to reduced melatonin release at night as a potential physiological mechanism underlying the advanced onset of morning activity of urbanized birds. Based on the pattern of melatonin secretion, we suggest that birds responded to light-at-night as if they were exposed to a longer day than birds kept under dark nights.

Light-at-night; Melatonin; Urbanization; Locomotor activity; GnIH; Circadian rhythms; Timing of reproduction; Birds