Vertebrate Digestive Systems
Vertebrates have evolved more complex digestive systems to adapt to their dietary needs. Some animals have a single stomach, while others have multi-chambered stomachs. Birds have developed a digestive system adapted to eating unmasticated food.
Monogastric: Single-chambered Stomach
As the word monogastric suggests, this type of digestive system consists of one (“mono”) stomach chamber (“gastric”). Humans and many animals have a monogastric digestive system as illustrated in figure (a) and (b) below. The process of digestion begins with the mouth and the intake of food. The teeth play an important role in masticating (chewing) or physically breaking down food into smaller particles. The enzymes present in saliva also begin to chemically break down food.
The esophagus is a long tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Using peristalsis, or wave-like smooth muscle contractions, the muscles of the esophagus push the food towards the stomach. In order to speed up the actions of enzymes in the stomach, the stomach is an extremely acidic environment, with a pH between 1.5 and 2.5. The gastric juices, which include enzymes in the stomach, act on the food particles and continue the process of digestion.
Further breakdown of food takes place in the small intestine where enzymes produced by the liver, the small intestine, and the pancreas continue the process of digestion. The nutrients are absorbed into the blood stream across the epithelial cells lining the walls of the small intestines. The waste material travels on to the large intestine where water is absorbed and the drier waste material is compacted into feces; it is stored until it is excreted through the rectum.
Birds face special challenges when it comes to obtaining nutrition from food. They do not have teeth and so their digestive system, shown in the figure below, must be able to process un-masticated food. Birds have evolved a variety of beak types that reflect the vast variety in their diet, ranging from seeds and insects to fruits and nuts. Because most birds fly, their metabolic rates are high in order to efficiently process food and keep their body weight low.
The stomach of birds has two chambers: the proventriculus, where gastric juices are produced to digest the food before it enters the stomach, and the gizzard, where the food is stored, soaked, and mechanically ground. The undigested material forms food pellets that are sometimes regurgitated. Most of the chemical digestion and absorption happens in the intestine and the waste is excreted through the cloaca.
Birds have a highly efficient, simplified digestive system. Recent fossil evidence has shown that the evolutionary divergence of birds from other land animals was characterized by streamlining and simplifying the digestive system. Unlike many other animals, birds do not have teeth to chew their food. In place of lips, they have sharp pointy beaks. The horny beak, lack of jaws, and the smaller tongue of the birds can be traced back to their dinosaur ancestors.
The emergence of these changes seems to coincide with the inclusion of seeds in the bird diet. Seed-eating birds have beaks that are shaped for grabbing seeds and the two-compartment stomach allows for delegation of tasks. Since birds need to remain light in order to fly, their metabolic rates are very high, which means they digest their food very quickly and need to eat often. Contrast this with the ruminants, where the digestion of plant matter takes a very long time.
Ruminants are mainly herbivores like cows, sheep, and goats, whose entire diet consists of eating large amounts of roughage or fiber. They have evolved digestive systems that help them digest vast amounts of cellulose. An interesting feature of the ruminants’ mouth is that they do not have upper incisor teeth. They use their lower teeth, tongue and lips to tear and chew their food. From the mouth, the food travels to the esophagus and on to the stomach.
To help digest the large amount of plant material, the stomach of the ruminants is a multi-chambered organ, as illustrated in the figure below. The four compartments of the stomach are called the rumen, reticulum, omasum, and abomasum. These chambers contain many microbes that break down cellulose and ferment ingested food. The abomasum is the “true” stomach and is the equivalent of the monogastric stomach chamber where gastric juices are secreted. The four-compartment gastric chamber provides larger space and the microbial support necessary to digest plant material in ruminants. The fermentation process produces large amounts of gas in the stomach chamber, which must be eliminated. As in other animals, the small intestine plays an important role in nutrient absorption, and the large intestine helps in the elimination of waste.
Some animals, such as camels and alpacas, are pseudo-ruminants. They eat a lot of plant material and roughage. Digesting plant material is not easy because plant cell walls contain the polymeric sugar molecule cellulose. The digestive enzymes of these animals cannot break down cellulose, but microorganisms present in the digestive system can. Therefore, the digestive system must be able to handle large amounts of roughage and break down the cellulose. Pseudo-ruminants have a three-chamber stomach in the digestive system. However, their cecum—a pouched organ at the beginning of the large intestine containing many microorganisms that are necessary for the digestion of plant materials—is large and is the site where the roughage is fermented and digested. These animals do not have a rumen but have an omasum, abomasum, and reticulum.