To evaluate the permeability of the intestine of the house sparrow Passer domesticus to hydrophilic compounds, we applied a pharmacokinetic technique to measure in vivo absorption of two carbohydrate probes, l-arabinose and d-mannitol. Probes were fed or injected, and blood and excreta were subsequently collected and analyzed by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. Following injection, plasma probe concentration decreased in a log-linear fashion, implying single-compartment, first-order kinetics. Following oral administration, plasma probe concentrations increased, reached a maximum at 10 min and then decreased in log-linear fashion. Mannitol and arabinose absorption were calculated from the areas under the post-absorption plasma curve and the respective distribution spaces and elimination constants. The amounts absorbed increased linearly with the concentration administered (range 1–1000 mmol × l(−1)), implying a passive process. The mouth-to-cloaca retention time of digesta, measured using the non-absorbable compound potassium ferrocyanide, was independent of probe concentration. On average, 69% of the oral dose of probe was absorbed and this was independent of the concentration of probe administered. This paper supports an earlier report of substantial passive glucose absorption in house sparrows and offers a method to study the extent of hydrophilic solute absorption, which has importance for future research in areas as diverse as biomedical, ecological and evolutionary physiology.

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