Maternal corticosterone deposition in avian yolk: Influence of laying order and group size in a joint-nesting, cooperatively breeding species

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Abstract

Glucocorticoid hormones play a key role in day-to-day adjustments to fluctuating metabolic needs. These hormones also mediate physiological and behavioral responses to stressful events, allowing individuals to cope with stressors. Various environmental insults, such as a food shortages, predation attempts, and agonistic encounters often elevate plasma glucocorticoid levels in vertebrates. Because exposure to maternally-derived (via circulation or egg) glucocorticoids may be detrimental to the developing embryo, maternal stress can have negative carryover effects on offspring fitness. We examined corticosterone, the primary avian glucocorticoid, concentrations in egg yolk in a plural-breeding, joint-nesting species, the smooth-billed ani (Crotophaga ani), in which females compete among themselves to lay eggs in the final incubated clutch. We investigated whether yolk corticosterone levels varied with laying order and group size. Because egg-laying competition leads to physiological and social stress that is intensified with group size and laying order, we predicted that yolk corticosterone levels should increase from the early to the late egg-laying period and from single female to multi-female groups. In this two-year field study, we found that yolk corticosterone levels of late-laid eggs within the communal clutch were higher in multi-female groups than in single female groups. Results from this study suggest that laying females experience higher levels of stress in multi-female groups and that this maternal stress influences yolk corticosterone concentrations. This study identifies a novel cost of group-living in plural-breeding cooperatively breeding birds, namely an increase in yolk corticosterone levels with group size that may result in detrimental effects on offspring development.

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Schmaltz, G., Quinn, J. S., & Schoech, S. J. (2016). Maternal corticosterone deposition in avian yolk: Influence of laying order and group size in a joint-nesting, cooperatively breeding species. General and Comparative Endocrinology, 232, 145–150. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ygcen.2016.04.022

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