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The American Naturalist





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Abstract: In species where offspring fitness is sex‐specifically influenced by maternal reproductive condition, sex allocation theory predicts that poor‐quality mothers should invest in the evolutionarily less expensive sex. Despite an accumulation of evidence that mothers can sex‐specifically modulate investment in offspring in relation to maternal quality, few mechanisms have been proposed as to how this is achieved. We explored a hormonal mechanism for sex‐biased maternal investment by measuring and experimentally manipulating baseline levels of the stress hormone corticosterone in laying wild female European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and examining effects on sex ratio and sex‐specific offspring phenotype adjustment. Here we show that baseline plasma corticosterone is negatively correlated with energetic body condition in laying starlings, and subsequent experimental elevation of maternal baseline plasma corticosterone increased yolk corticosterone without altering maternal condition or egg quality per se. Hormonal elevation resulted in the following: female‐biased hatching sex ratios (caused by elevated male embryonic mortality), lighter male offspring at hatching (which subsequently grew more slowly during postnatal development), and lower cell‐mediated immune (phytohemagglutinin) responses in males compared with control‐born males; female offspring were unaffected by the manipulation in both years of the study. Elevated maternal corticosterone therefore resulted in a sex‐biased adjustment of offspring quality favorable to female offspring via both a sex ratio bias and a modulation of male phenotype at hatching. In birds, deposition of yolk corticosterone may benefit mothers by acting as a bet‐hedging strategy in stochastic environments where the correlation between environmental cues at laying (and therefore potentially maternal condition) and conditions during chick‐rearing might be low and unpredictable. Together with recent studies in other vertebrate taxa, these results suggest that maternal stress hormones provide a mechanistic link between maternal quality and sex‐biased maternal investment in offspring.

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