For many animal species, knowing when to look for food may be as important as knowing where to look. Rats and other species use a feeding-responsive circadian timing mechanism to anticipate, behaviorally and physiologically, a predictable daily feeding opportunity. How this mechanism for anticipating a daily meal accommodates more than one predictable mealtime is unclear. Rats were trained to press a lever for food, and then limited to one or more daily meals at fixed or systematically varying times of day. The rats were able to anticipate up to 4 of 4 daily meals at fixed times of day and two 'daily' meals recurring at 24 h and 26 h intervals. When deprived of food, in constant dark, lever pressing recurred for multiple cycles at expected mealtimes, consistent with the periodicity of the prior feeding schedule. Anticipation did not require the suprachiasmatic nucleus circadian pacemaker. The anticipation rhythms could be simulated using a Kuramoto model in which clusters of coupled oscillators entrain to specific mealtimes based on initial phase and intrinsic circadian periodicity. A flexibly coupled system of food-entrainable circadian oscillators endows rats with adaptive plasticity in daily programming of foraging activity.
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