Glucocorticoids (GCs) are often interpreted as indicators of disturbance, habitat quality, and fitness in wild populations. However, since most investigations have been unable to examine habitat variability, GC levels, and fitness simultaneously, such interpretations remain largely unvalidated. We combined a quantification of two habitat types, a manipulation of foraging ability (feather-clipping just prior to nestling rearing), multiple baseline plasma GC measures, and multi-year reproductive monitoring to experimentally examine the linkages between habitat quality, GCs, and fitness in female tree swallows Tachycineta bicolor. Control females experiencing the higher early-season food resources of inland–pasture habitat laid larger clutches, but fledged an equal number but lower mass offspring compared to those in riparian–cropland habitat. Despite these differences in reproductive success, females nesting in the two habitat types did not differ in baseline GC levels at the early- or late-breeding stage. Feather-clipping reduced provisioning rate in both habitat types. However, baseline GC levels were affected in a habitat-specific way; only individuals in inland–pasture habitats showed an increase in GCs. Despite this difference in GC levels, the manipulation did not influence offspring mass, reproductive output, adult return rate (a proxy for survival) to the following year, or reproductive success in the subsequent year. Nonetheless, regardless of treatment, individuals with higher GC levels during the late breeding stage returned in the following year with higher GC levels at incubation, indicating a long-term effect on future GC levels. Our results indicate that environmental changes (e.g. foraging conditions) can have consequences for body condition, behaviour, and current and future baseline GC levels without concomitant influences on fitness, and that differences in fitness components between habitats may not be reflected in baseline GC levels. These results illustrate that baseline GCs may not simultaneously reflect environmental quality and fitness, potentially limiting their application in ecological and conservation settings.
Madliger, Christine L. and Love, Oliver P., "Do baseline glucocorticoids simultaneously represent fitness and environmental quality in a declining aerial insectivore?" (2016). Oikos, 125, 12, 1824-1837.
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