Fasting is part of penguin's breeding constraints. During prolonged fasting, three metabolic phases occur successively. Below a threshold in body reserves, birds enter phase III (PIII), which is characterized by hormonal and metabolic shifts. These changes are concomitant with egg abandonment in the wild and increased locomotor activity in captivity. Because corticosterone (CORT) enhances foraging activity, we investigated the variations of endogenous CORT, and the effects of exogenous CORT on the behavioral, hormonal, and metabolic responses of failed breeder Adélie penguins. Untreated and treated captive male birds were regularly weighed and sampled for blood while fasting, and locomotor activity was recorded daily. Treated birds were implanted with various doses of CORT during phase II. Untreated penguins entering PIII had increased CORT (3.5-fold) and uric acid (4-fold; reflecting protein catabolism) levels, concomitantly with a rise in locomotor activity (2-fold), while prolactin (involved in parental care in birds) levels declined by 33%. In CORT-treated birds, an inverted-U relationship was obtained between CORT levels and locomotor activity. The greatest increase in locomotor activity was observed in birds implanted with a high dose of CORT (C100), locomotor activity showing a 2.5-fold increase, 4 days after implantation to a level similar to that of birds in PIII. Moreover, uric acid levels increased three-fold in C100-birds, while prolactin levels declined by 30%. The experimentally induced rise in CORT levels mimicked metabolic, hormonal, and behavioral changes, characterizing late fasting, thus supporting a role for this hormone in the enhanced drive for refeeding occurring in long-term fasting birds.
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