Determinants of within- and among-clutch variation in yolk corticosterone in the European starling

Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Title

Hormones and Behavior





First Page


Last Page





Maternal glucocorticoids are known to affect offspring phenotype in numerous vertebrate taxa. In birds, the maternal transfer of corticosterone to eggs was recently proposed as a hormonal mechanism by which offspring phenotype is matched to the relative quality of the maternal environment. However, current hypotheses lack supporting information on both intra- and inter-clutch variation in yolk corticosterone for wild birds. As such, we examined variation in yolk corticosterone levels in a wild population of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Maternal condition, clutch size and nesting density were all negatively related to yolk corticosterone deposition; females with high condition indices, those laying larger clutches and those nesting in high-density associations deposited lower amounts of the hormone into eggs than those with low condition indices, laying small clutches and nesting in isolation. Alternatively, we found no effects of maternal age or human disturbance on yolk corticosterone deposition. Intra-clutch variation of yolk corticosterone was significant, with levels increasing across the laying sequence in all clutch sizes examined, with the difference between first and last-laid eggs being greater in large versus small clutches. Given the reported effects of yolk corticosterone on offspring size and growth, intra-clutch variation in yolk corticosterone has the potential to alter the competitive environment within a brood. Furthermore, our results indicate that variation in yolk corticosterone can originate from variation in both the mother's quality as well as the quality of her breeding environment. The presence of inter-female variation in particular is an important pre-requisite in testing whether the exposure of offspring to maternally-derived corticosterone is a mechanistic link between offspring phenotypic plasticity and maternal quality.