Changes in telomere length are believed to reflect changes in physiological state and life expectancy in animals. However, much remains unknown about the determinants of telomere dynamics in wild populations, and specifically the influence of conditions during highly mobile life-history stages, for example migration. We tested whether telomere dynamics were associated with migratory behaviour and/or with stress during reproduction in free-living seabirds. We induced short-term stress during reproduction in chick-rearing, black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla), tracked winter migration with geolocators and measured telomere length before and after winter migration. We found that time spent at wintering grounds correlated with reduced telomere loss, while stress during reproduction accelerated telomere shortening. Our results suggest that different life-history stages interact to influence telomere length, and that migratory patterns may be important determinants of variation in an individual's telomere dynamics.
overwintering; migratory behaviour; breeding; seasonal effects; carry-over; telomeres
Vertebrates respond to unpredictable noxious environmental stimuli by increasing secretion of glucocorticoids (CORT). Although this hormonal stress response is adaptive, high levels of CORT may induce significant costs if stressful situations are frequent. Thus, alternative coping mechanisms that help buffer individuals against environmental stressors may be selected for when the costs of CORT levels are elevated. By allowing individuals to identify, anticipate and cope with the stressful circumstances, cognition may enable stress-specific behavioural coping. Although there is evidence that behavioural responses allow animals to cope with stressful situations, it is unclear whether or not cognition reduces investment in the neuroendocrine stress response. Here, we report that in birds, species with larger brains relative to their body size show lower baseline and peak CORT levels than species with smaller brains. This relationship is consistent across life-history stages, and cannot be accounted for by differences in life history and geographical latitude. Because a large brain is a major feature of birds that base their lifetime in learning new things, our results support the hypothesis that enhanced cognition represents a general alternative to the neuroendocrine stress response.
stress response; brain size; cognition; innovation; phylogenetic comparative analysis
Mercury, a ubiquitous toxic element, is known to alter expression of sex steroids and to impair reproduction across vertebrates but the mechanisms underlying these effects are not clearly identified. We examined whether contamination by mercury predicts the probability to skip reproduction in black-legged kittiwakes (Rissa tridactyla) from Svalbard. We also manipulated the endocrine system to investigate the mechanism underlying this relationship. During the pre-laying period, we injected exogenous GnRH (gonadotropin-releasing hormone) to test the ability of the pituitary to release luteinizing hormone (LH, a key hormone for the release of sex steroids and hence breeding) in relation to mercury burden. Birds that skipped reproduction had significantly higher mercury concentration in blood than breeders. Endocrine profiles of these birds also varied based on breeding status (breeders versus non-breeders), mercury contamination and sex. Specifically, in skippers (birds that did not breed), baseline LH decreased with increasing mercury concentration in males, whereas it increased in females. GnRH-induced LH levels increased with increasing mercury concentration in both sexes. These results suggest that mercury contamination may disrupt GnRH input to the pituitary. Thus, high mercury concentration could affect the ability of long-lived birds to modulate their reproductive effort (skipping or breeding) according to ongoing environmental changes in the Arctic, thereby impacting population dynamics.
intermittent breeding; mercury; GnRH challenge; luteinizing hormone; black-legged kittiwake
Seabirds, as long-lived top predators, accumulate contaminants such as mercury (Hg), an established endocrine disruptor. In long lived species hormonal secretion varies with age; therefore, Hg-induced endocrine disruption may be exacerbated in some age classes. Here we investigated relationships between blood total Hg and luteinizing hormone (LH, a key pituitary hormone for the onset of breeding), in pre-laying known-age (11–45 years old) snow petrels (Pagodroma nivea) from Adélie Land, Antarctica. We predicted that 1) blood Hg would increase with advancing age as a consequence of bio-accumulation; and that 2) increasing blood Hg would be related to decreased concentrations of LH in the most Hg-contaminated individuals. Hg concentrations were higher in females than in males (p<0.001), and contrary to our prediction, decreased with advancing age in males (p = 0.009) and tended to do so in females (p = 0.06). The analysis of stable isotopes (δ13C and δ15N) suggested that this unexpected pattern could originate from age and sex-related variations in trophic niche, and hence Hg exposure. Regarding LH, our prediction was only supported in young birds (≤23 years) where baseline LH was inversely correlated with Hg concentrations (p = 0.04). Hg burden did not predict baseline LH or GnRH-induced LH in birds that were more than 23 years old. These results show that age and contaminants may interfere with major endocrine mechanisms and, together with other recent studies, support the view that Hg could be connected to LH secretion and could then impair the fitness of long-lived birds.
Despite a great number of studies on extra-pair paternity in birds, the actual roles of males and females in extra-pair contacts is poorly understood, as detailed behavioural studies comparing the reproductive performance of the two sexes prior to egg laying are relatively scarce. Here, we investigated mating behaviour (copulations and aggressive interactions), time budget and body condition (size-adjusted body mass and baseline corticosterone level) in the little auk (Alle alle), a monogamous and highly colonial, Arctic seabird. We performed the study in a large breeding colony of the little auk in Hornsund (Spitsbergen). We found that the males frequently attempted extra-pair copulations (EPCs), although these contacts were almost always unsuccessful, mostly because of the females’ rejection behaviour. These results clearly indicate that genetic monogamy is maintained through female control. Nevertheless, males tried to protect their paternity by staying in close proximity to their females and aggressively intervening when their mates became involved in EPCs. Compared to females, males also spent more time in the colony guarding nest sites. Despite the apparent sex differences in the time budget and frequency of aggressive interactions, body condition was similar in the two sexes, indicating comparable parental investments during the mating period.
Alle alle; Little auk (dovekie); Corticosterone; Extra-pair copulations; Pre-laying parental investments
The effects of environmental perturbations or stressors on individual states can be carried over to subsequent life stages and ultimately affect survival and reproduction. The concentration of corticosterone (CORT) in feathers is an integrated measure of hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal activity during the molting period, providing information on the total baseline and stress-induced CORT secreted during the period of feather growth. Common eiders and greater snow geese replace all flight feathers once a year during the pre-basic molt, which occurs following breeding. Thus, CORT contained in feathers of pre-breeding individuals sampled in spring reflects the total CORT secreted during the previous molting event, which may provide insight into the magnitude or extent of stress experienced during this time period. We used data from multiple recaptures to disentangle the contribution of individual quality vs. external factors (i.e., breeding investment or environmental conditions) on feather CORT in arctic-nesting waterfowl. Our results revealed no repeatability of feather CORT within individuals of either species. In common eiders, feather CORT was not affected by prior reproductive investment, nor by pre-breeding (spring) body condition prior to the molting period. Individual feather CORT greatly varied according to the year, and August-September temperatures explained most of the annual variation in feather CORT. Understanding mechanisms that affect energetic costs and stress responses during molting will require further studies either using long-term data or experiments. Although our study period encompassed only five years, it nonetheless provides evidence that CORT measured in feathers likely reflects responses to environmental conditions experienced by birds during molt, and could be used as a metric to study carry-over effects.
Hormonally mediated maternal effects link maternal phenotype and environmental conditions to offspring phenotype. The production of lipid-rich maternal yolk precursors may provide a mechanism by which lipophilic steroid hormones can be transported to developing yolks, thus predicting a positive correlation between yolk precursors in mothers and androgen levels in eggs. Using rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome), which produce a two-egg clutch characterized by extreme egg-size dimorphism, reversed hatching asynchrony and brood-reduction, we examined correlations between circulating concentrations of the primary yolk-precursor vitellogenin (VTG) and levels of yolk androgens. Previous work in Eudyptes penguins has shown that egg-size dimorphism is the product of migratory constraints on yolk precursor production. We predicted that if yolk precursors are constrained, androgen transport to developing yolks would be similarly constrained. We reveal positive linear relationships between maternal VTG and androgens in small A-eggs but not larger B-eggs, which is consistent with a migratory constraint operating on the A-egg. Results suggest that intra-clutch variation in total yolk androgen levels depends on the production and uptake of yolk precursors. The brood reduction strategy common to Eudyptes might thus be best described as the result of a migratory constraint.
androstenedione; testosterone; physiological epiphenomenon hypothesis; vitellogenin; maternal effects; carryover effects
The Long-tailed Skua, a small (<300 g) Arctic-breeding predator and seabird, is a functionally very important component of the Arctic vertebrate communities in summer, but little is known about its migration and winter distribution. We used light-level geolocators to track the annual movements of eight adult birds breeding in north-east Greenland (n = 3) and Svalbard (n = 5). All birds wintered in the Southern Hemisphere (mean arrival-departure dates on wintering grounds: 24 October-21 March): five along the south-west coast of Africa (0–40°S, 0–15°E), in the productive Benguela upwelling, and three further south (30–40°S, 0–50°E), in an area extending into the south-west Indian Ocean. Different migratory routes and rates of travel were documented during post-breeding (345 km d−1 in late August-early September) and spring migrations (235 km d−1 in late April) when most birds used a more westerly flyway. Among the different staging areas, a large region off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland appears to be the most important. It was used in autumn by all but one of the tracked birds (from a few days to three weeks) and in spring by five out of eight birds (from one to more than six weeks). Two other staging sites, off the Iberian coast and near the Azores, were used by two birds in spring for five to six weeks. Over one year, individuals travelled between 43,900 and 54,200 km (36,600–45,700 when excluding staging periods) and went as far as 10,500–13,700 km (mean 12,800 km) from their breeding sites. This study has revealed important marine areas in both the south and north Atlantic Ocean. Sustainable management of these ocean basins will benefit Long-tailed Skuas as well as other trans-equatorial migrants from the Arctic.
In egg laying species, breeding females may adjust the allocation of nutrients or other substances into eggs in order to maximise offspring or maternal fitness. Cooperatively breeding species offer a particularly interesting context in which to study maternal allocation because helpers create predictably improved conditions during offspring development. Some recent studies on cooperative species showed that females assisted by helpers produced smaller eggs, as the additional food brought by the helpers appeared to compensate for this reduction in egg size. However, it remains unclear how common this effect might be. Also currently unknown is whether females change egg composition when assisted by helpers. This effect is predicted by current maternal allocation theory, but has not been previously investigated. We studied egg mass and contents in sociable weavers (Philetairus socius). We found that egg mass decreased with group size, while fledgling mass did not vary, suggesting that helpers may compensate for the reduced investment in eggs. We found no differences in eggs’ carotenoid contents, but females assisted by helpers produced eggs with lower hormonal content, specifically testosterone, androstenedione (A4) and corticosterone levels. Taken together, these results suggest that the environment created by helpers can influence maternal allocation and potentially offspring phenotypes.
Thyroid hormones (TH) are known to stimulate in vitro oxygen consumption of tissues in mammals and birds. Hence, in many laboratory studies a positive relationship between TH concentrations and basal metabolic rate (BMR) has been demonstrated whereas evidence from species in the wild is scarce. Even though basal and field metabolic rates (FMR) are often thought to be intrinsically linked it is still unknown whether a relationship between TH and FMR exists. Here we determine the relationship between the primary thyroid hormone triiodothyronine (T3) with both BMR and FMR in a wild bird species, the black-legged kittiwake (Rissa tridactyla). As predicted we found a strong and positive relationship between plasma concentrations of T3 and both BMR and mass-independent BMR with coefficients of determination ranging from 0.36 to 0.60. In contrast there was no association of T3 levels with either whole-body or mass-independent FMR (R2 = 0.06 and 0.02, respectively). In accordance with in vitro studies our data suggests that TH play an important role in modulating BMR and may serve as a proxy for basal metabolism in wild birds. However, the lack of a relationship between TH and FMR indicates that levels of physical activity in kittiwakes are largely independent of TH concentrations and support recent studies that cast doubt on a direct linkage between BMR and FMR.
Vector-borne diseases are particularly responsive to changing environmental conditions. Diurnal temperature variation has been identified as a particularly important factor for the development of malaria parasites within vectors. Here, we conducted a survey across France, screening populations of the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) for malaria (Plasmodium relictum). We investigated whether variation in remotely-sensed environmental variables accounted for the spatial variation observed in prevalence and parasitemia. While prevalence was highly correlated to diurnal temperature range and other measures of temperature variation, environmental conditions could not predict spatial variation in parasitemia. Based on our empirical data, we mapped malaria distribution under climate change scenarios and predicted that Plasmodium occurrence will spread to regions in northern France, and that prevalence levels are likely to increase in locations where transmission already occurs. Our findings, based on remote sensing tools coupled with empirical data suggest that climatic change will significantly alter transmission of malaria parasites.
Using top predators as sentinels of the marine environment, Hg contamination was investigated within the large subantarctic seabird community of Kerguelen Islands, a remote area from the poorly known Southern Indian Ocean. Chicks of 21 sympatric seabirds presented a wide range of Hg concentrations, with the highest contaminated species containing ∼102 times more feather Hg than the less contaminated species. Hence, Kerguelen seabirds encompass the whole range of chick feather Hg values that were previously collected worldwide in poorly industrialized localities. Using stable isotopes, the effects of foraging habitats (reflected by δ13C) and trophic positions (reflected by δ15N) on Hg concentrations were investigated. Species-related Hg variations were highly and positively linked to feather δ15N values, thus highlighting the occurrence of efficient Hg biomagnification processes within subantarctic marine trophic webs. By contrast, Hg contamination overall correlated poorly with feeding habitats, because of the pooling of species foraging within different isotopic gradients corresponding to distinct seabird habitats (benthic, pelagic, neritic and oceanic). However, when focusing on oceanic seabirds, Hg concentration was related to feather δ13C values, with species feeding in colder waters (lower δ13C values) south of Kerguelen Islands being less prone to be contaminated than species feeding in northern warmer waters (higher δ13C values). Within the context of continuous increase in global Hg emissions, Kerguelen Islands that are located far away from anthropogenic sources can be considered as an ideal study site to monitor the temporal trend of global Hg contamination. The present work helps selecting some seabird species as sentinels of environmental pollution according to their high Hg concentrations and their contrasted foraging ecology.
Skipping reproduction is often observed in long-lived organisms, but proximate mechanisms remain poorly understood. Since young and/or very old snow petrels (Pagodroma nivea) commonly skip breeding, we tested whether they are physiologically able to breed during the pre-laying stage. To do so, we measured the ability of known-age (11–45 years old) petrels to release luteinizing hormone (LH, a crucial driver for breeding), by injecting exogenous gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH). Although young petrels exhibited low baseline LH levels, they were able to elevate LH levels after a GnRH challenge. Moreover, young and very old petrels showed a stronger decrease in LH levels after the 10 min post-GnRH injection compared with middle-aged petrels. Birds that skipped breeding were as able as breeders to release LH after a GnRH challenge, indicating that they had functional pituitaries. However, the decision to skip reproduction was linked to a strong LH decrease after the 10 min post-GnRH injection. Our result suggests that the youngest and the oldest petrels fail to maintain elevated baseline LH levels, thereby do not initiate reproductive activities. Skipping reproduction in long-lived birds probably results from age-related changes in the dynamics of the hypothalamic–pituitary–gonadal (HPG) axis function.
intermittent breeding; age; GnRH challenge; luteinizing hormone; snow petrels
The lavender phenotype in quail is a dilution of both eumelanin and phaeomelanin in feathers that produces a blue-grey colour on a wild-type feather pattern background. It has been previously demonstrated by intergeneric hybridization that the lavender mutation in quail is homologous to the same phenotype in chicken, which is caused by a single base-pair change in exon 1 of MLPH.
In this study, we have shown that a mutation of MLPH is also associated with feather colour dilution in quail, but that the mutational event is extremely different. In this species, the lavender phenotype is associated with a non-lethal complex mutation involving three consecutive overlapping chromosomal changes (two inversions and one deletion) that have consequences on the genomic organization of four genes (MLPH and the neighbouring PRLH, RAB17 and LRRFIP1). The deletion of PRLH has no effect on the level of circulating prolactin. Lavender birds have lighter body weight, lower body temperature and increased feed consumption and residual feed intake than wild-type plumage quail, indicating that this complex mutation is affecting the metabolism and the regulation of homeothermy.
An extensive overlapping chromosome rearrangement was associated with a non-pathological Mendelian trait and minor, non deleterious effects in the lavender Japanese quail which is a natural knockout for PRLH.
Whether androgen deposition in eggs is physiologically costly for female birds has remained a crucial but unsolved question, despite a broad use of this assumption in functional studies. We tested whether females depositing high androgen concentrations experienced higher mass losses than females depositing low androgen concentrations. Analysing female body mass change during egg formation in rockhopper penguins (Eudyptes chrysocome chrysocome), we observed no energetic cost to androgen deposition. Nevertheless, lighter females laid eggs with higher yolk androgen concentrations. This relationship existed only for the second-laid egg (B-egg), but not for the first-laid egg (A-egg). Since the B-egg is usually the first to hatch and the only one to produce a fledging chick, we hypothesize that differential yolk androgen deposition may be an adaptive strategy for females to affect brood reduction.
yolk testosterone; yolk androstenedione; female body mass; laying order
Antagonistic coevolution between hosts and parasites has been proposed as a mechanism maintaining genetic diversity in both host and parasite populations. In particular, the high level of genetic diversity usually observed at the major histocompatibility complex (MHC) is generally thought to be maintained by parasite-driven selection. Among the possible ways through which parasites can maintain MHC diversity, diversifying selection has received relatively less attention. This hypothesis is based on the idea that parasites exert spatially variable selection pressures because of heterogeneity in parasite genetic structure, abundance or virulence. Variable selection pressures should select for different host allelic lineages resulting in population-specific associations between MHC alleles and risk of infection. In this study, we took advantage of a large survey of avian malaria in 13 populations of the house sparrow (Passer domesticus) to test this hypothesis. We found that (i) several MHC alleles were either associated with increased or decreased risk to be infected with Plasmodium relictum, (ii) the effects were population specific, and (iii) some alleles had antagonistic effects across populations. Overall, these results support the hypothesis that diversifying selection in space can maintain MHC variation and suggest a pattern of local adaptation where MHC alleles are selected at the local host population level.
avian malaria; diversifying selection; Passer domesticus; Plasmodium relictum; resistance; susceptibility
Measuring individual quality in vertebrates is difficult. Focusing on allostasis mechanisms may be useful because they are functionally involved in the ability of an individual to survive and reproduce in its environment. Thus, a rise in stress hormones levels (corticosterone) occurs when an organism has to cope with challenging environmental conditions. This has recently led to the proposal of the ‘cort–fitness hypothesis’, which suggests that elevated baseline corticosterone levels should be found in individuals of poor quality that have difficulty coping with their environment. We tested this hypothesis by comparing an integrative measure of individual quality to baseline corticosterone in black-browed albatrosses (Thalassarche melanophrys). We found that individual baseline corticosterone levels were related to individual quality and highly repeatable from one breeding season to the next. Importantly, this relationship was found in males, but not in females. Therefore, we suggest that the relationship between quality and baseline corticosterone levels may depend on the environmental and energetic constraints that individuals have to cope with.
corticosterone; fitness; quality; albatross
Genetic estimates of the variability of immune responses are rarely examined in natural populations because of confounding environmental effects. As a result, and because of the difficulty of pinpointing the genetic determinants of immunity, no study has to our knowledge examined the contribution of specific genes to the heritability of an immune response in wild populations. We cross-fostered nestling house sparrows to disrupt the association between genetic and environmental effects and determine the heritability of the response to a classic immunological test, the phytohaemagglutinin (PHA)-induced skin swelling. We detected significant heritability estimates of the response to PHA, of body mass and tarsus length when nestlings were 5 and 10 days old. Variation at Mhc genes, however, did not explain a significant portion of the genetic variation of nestling swelling to PHA. Our results suggest that while PHA-induced swelling is influenced by the nest of origin, the importance of additive genetic variation relative to non-additive genetic variation and the genetic factors that influence the former in wild populations still need to be identified for this trait.
major histocompatibility complex; phytohaemagglutinin-induced skin swelling; cross-fostering; heritability; house sparrow
Secondary sexual traits (SST) are usually thought to have evolved as honest signals of individual quality during mate choice. Honesty of SST is guaranteed by the cost of producing/maintaining them. In males, the expression of many SST is testosterone-dependent. The immunocompetence handicap hypothesis has been proposed as a possible mechanism ensuring honesty of SST on the basis that testosterone, in addition to its effect on sexual signals, also has an immunosuppressive effect. The immunocompetence handicap hypothesis has received mixed support. However, the cost of testosterone-based signalling is not limited to immunosuppression and might involve other physiological functions such as the antioxidant machinery. Here, we tested the hypothesis that testosterone depresses resistance to oxidative stress in a species with a testosterone-dependent sexual signal, the zebra finch. Male zebra finches received subcutaneous implants filled with flutamide (an anti-androgen) or testosterone, or kept empty (control). In agreement with the prediction, we found that red blood cell resistance to a free radical attack was the highest in males implanted with flutamide and the lowest in males implanted with testosterone. We also found that cell-mediated immune response was depressed in testosterone-treated birds, supporting the immunocompetence handicap hypothesis. The recent finding that red blood cell resistance to free radicals is negatively associated with mortality in this species suggests that benefits of sexual signalling might trade against the costs derived from oxidation.
anti-androgen; evolutionary trade-offs; free radicals; immunocompetence handicap hypothesis; oxidative stress; sexual selection
The stress response is highly variable among individuals, but the causes of this variation remain largely unknown. In response to stressors, vertebrates secrete elevated levels of glucocorticoids which enhance survival, but concurrently interfere with reproduction. We tested the hypothesis that individuals flexibly modulate their stress response with respect to the reproductive value of their brood in free-living house sparrows (Passer domesticus). We experimentally increased or decreased clutch size during the nestling period and found that parents tending enlarged clutches responded less strongly to a stressor than those tending reduced clutches. In addition, we examined whether individuals responded less strongly to a stressor as the breeding season progressed and future reproductive opportunities declined. We found that the stress response decreased with breeding date during the birds' first breeding attempt, but it remained constant during their second breeding attempt. Within-individual variability in the stress response was related to the brood size manipulations the birds received in their two consecutive breeding attempts. These results provide the first experimental support for the hypothesis that individuals actively modulate their stress response with respect to the value of current reproduction.
stress-response modulation; corticosterone; life history; parental care; brood size manipulation; Passer domesticus
The extreme polymorphism of the vertebrate major histocompatibility complex (Mhc) is famous for protecting hosts against constantly evolving pathogens. Mate choice is often evoked as a means of maintaining Mhc variability through avoidance of partners with similar Mhc alleles or preference for heterozygotes. Evidence for these two hypotheses mostly comes from studies on humans and laboratory mice. Here, we tested these hypotheses in a wild outbred population of house sparrows (Passer domesticus). Females were not more or less closely related to the males they paired with when considering neutral genetic variation. However, males failed to form breeding pairs when they had too few Mhc alleles and when they were too dissimilar from females at Mhc loci (i.e. had no common alleles). Furthermore, pairs did not form at random as Mhc diversity positively correlated in mating pairs. These results suggest that mate choice evolves in response to (i) benefits in terms of parasite resistance acquired from allelic diversity, and (ii) costs associated with the disruption of co-adapted genes.
Mhc; mate choice; outbreeding avoidance; inbreeding avoidance; heterozygote advantage