Exposure to maternally derived glucocorticoids during embryonic development impacts offspring phenotype. Although many of these effects appear to be transiently ‘negative’, embryonic exposure to maternally derived stress hormones is hypothesized to induce preparative responses that increase survival prospects for offspring in low-quality environments; however, little is known about how maternal stress influences longer-term survival-related performance traits in free-living individuals. Using an experimental elevation of yolk corticosterone (embryonic signal of low maternal quality), we examined potential impacts of embryonic exposure to maternally derived stress on flight performance, wing loading, muscle morphology and muscle physiology in juvenile European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Here we report that fledglings exposed to experimentally increased corticosterone in ovo performed better during flight performance trials than control fledglings. Consistent with differences in performance, individuals exposed to elevated embryonic corticosterone fledged with lower wing loading and had heavier and more functionally mature flight muscles compared with control fledglings. Our results indicate that the positive effects on a survival-related trait in response to embryonic exposure to maternally derived stress hormones may balance some of the associated negative developmental costs that have recently been reported. Moreover, if embryonic experience is a good predictor of the quality or risk of future environments, a preparative phenotype associated with exposure to apparently negative stimuli during development may be adaptive.
Keywords: yolk hormones, corticosterone, embryonic stress, flight performance, survival, European starling