Feather corticosterone (CORT) levels are increasingly employed as biomarkers of environmental stress. However, it is unclear if feather CORT levels reflect stress and/or workload in the wild. We investigated whether feather CORT represents a biomarker of environmental stress and reproductive effort in tree swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Specifically, we examined whether individual state and investment during reproduction could predict feather CORT levels in subsequently moulted feathers and whether those levels could predict future survival and reproductive success. Through a manipulation of flight cost during breeding, we also investigated whether an increase in stress level would be reflected in subsequently grown feathers, and whether those levels could predict future success. We found that CORT levels of feathers grown during moult did not (1) reflect past breeding experience (n = 29), (2) predict reproductive output (n = 18), or (3) respond to a manipulation of flight effort during reproduction (10 experimental, 14 control females). While higher feather CORT levels predicted higher return rate (a proxy for survival), they did so only in the manipulated group (n = 36), and this relationship was opposite to expected. Overall, our results add to the mixed literature reporting that feather CORT levels can be positively, negatively, or not related to proxies of within-season and longer-term fitness (i.e., carryover effects). In addition, our results indicate that CORT levels or disturbances experienced during one time (e.g., breeding) may not carry over to subsequent stages (e.g., moult). We, therefore, petition for directed research investigating whether feather CORT represents exposure to chronic stress in feathers grown during moult.
Harris, Christopher M.; Madliger, Christine L.; and Love, Oliver P., "An evaluation of feather corticosterone as a biomarker of fitness and an ecologically relevant stressor during breeding in the wild" (2017). Oecologia, 183, 4, 987-996.
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