Plasticity in the adrenocortical response of a free-living vertebrate: The role of pre- and post-natal developmental stress

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Hormones and Behavior





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Optimal functioning of the hypothalamo–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis is paramount to maximizing fitness in vertebrates. Research in laboratory mammals has suggested that maternally-induced stress can cause significant variation in the responsiveness of an offspring's HPA axis involving both pre- and post-natal developmental mechanisms. However, very little is known regarding effects of maternal stress on the variability of offspring adrenocortical functioning in free-living vertebrates. Here we use an experimental approach that independently lowers the quality of both the pre- and post-natal developmental environment to examine programming and plasticity in the responsiveness of the HPA axis in fledglings of a free-living passerine, the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris). We found that mimicking a hormonal signal of poor maternal condition via an experimental pre-natal increase in yolk corticosterone decreased the subsequent responsiveness of the HPA axis in fledglings. Conversely, decreasing the quality of the post-natal developmental environment (by decreasing maternal provisioning capability via a maternal feather-clipping manipulation) increased subsequent responsiveness of the HPA axis in fledglings, apparently through direct effects on nestling body condition. The plasticity of these responses was sex-specific with smaller female offspring showing the largest increase in HPA reactivity. We suggest that pre-natal, corticosterone-induced, plasticity in the HPA axis may be a ‘predictive adaptive response’ (PAR): a form of adaptive developmental plasticity where the advantage of the induced phenotype is manifested in a future life-history stage. Further, we introduce a new term to define the condition-driven post-natal plasticity of the HPA axis to an unpredictable post-natal environment, namely a ‘reactive adaptive response’ (RAR). This study confirms that the quality of both the pre- and post-natal developmental environment can be a significant source of variation in the responsiveness of the HPA axis, and provides a frame-work for examining ecologically-relevant sources of stress-induced programming and plasticity in this endocrine system in a free-living vertebrate, respectively.