Biochemical functions of geophagy in parrots: Detoxification of dietary toxins and cytoprotective effects

James D. Gilardi, Sean S. Duffey, Charles A. Munn, Lisa A Tell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

158 Scopus citations


This study tests hypotheses on the biochemical functions of geophagy in parrots: mechanical enhancement of digestion, acid buffering capacity, mineral supplementation, adsorption of dietary toxins, and gastrointestinal cytoprotection. Parrots showed clear preferences for specific soil horizons. Comparisons of preferred and nonpreferred soils from several sites suggest that soils have little ability to enhance grinding and no measurable ability to buffer gastric pH. Soils offered insignificant mineral supplementation since most minerals occurred at similar levels in samples regardless of preference, and the minerals were generally more plentiful in the birds' diets. Sodium was available in moderate levels at some sites (>1000 ppm), but was well below sodium detection thresholds of parrots. X-ray diffraction, cation exchange capacity, and in vitro adsorptive trials showed that the preferred soils are capable of exchanging substantial quantities of cations and are capable of adsorbing low-molecular-weight secondary compounds. In captive Amazona parrots, orally administered clay reduced the bioavailability of the alkaloid quinidine by roughly 60%, demonstrating that in vivo adsorption of potentially toxic compounds may be a biologically important function of geophagy. Labeled clay remained in the lower gastrointestinal tract of captive parrots for >12 hr, which along with high adsorptive capacities, further suggests a potential role in protecting the gastrointestinal lining from various biological and chemical insults. Detoxification and cytoprotection are the most likely functions of geophagy for parrots and herbivores with similar ecologies. Given the variety of chemically defended seeds consumed by these herbivores, geophagy likely protects consumers from dietary toxins, allowing increased diet breadth and/or enhancing digestibility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)897-922
Number of pages26
JournalJournal of Chemical Ecology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1999


  • Clay
  • Cytoprotection
  • Detoxification
  • Dietary ecology
  • Geophagy
  • Macaw
  • Mineral
  • Parrot
  • Secondary compounds

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Biochemistry
  • Ecology


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