Using life-histories to predict and interpret variability in yolk hormones

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General and Comparative Endocrinology





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Variation in yolk hormones is assumed to provide the plasticity necessary for mothers to individually optimize reproductive decisions via changes in offspring phenotype, the benefit being to maximise fitness. However, rather than routinely expecting adaptive variation within all species, the pattern and magnitude of yolk hormone deposition should theoretically relate to variation in life-histories. Here we present data on intra-clutch variation in yolk corticosterone in three species along a developmental continuum (European starling (Sturnus vulgaris): fully altricial; black guillemot (Cepphus grylle): semi-precocial; common eider (Somateria mollissima): fully precocial) to examine how and why variation in life-histories might relate to the evolution of variation in yolk steroids. Starlings and guillemots showed a significant increase in yolk corticosterone across the laying sequence; however, we found no pattern within eider clutches. Moreover, starlings showed the largest difference (94.6%) in yolk corticosterone between first- and last-laid eggs, whereas guillemots showed a moderate difference (58.9%). Despite these general species-specific patterns, individuals showed marked variation in the intra-clutch patterns of yolk corticosterone within each species indicating potential differences in intra-clutch flexibility among females. It is well documented that exposure to elevated yolk glucocorticoids reduces offspring quality at birth/hatching in many taxa and it has therefore been proposed that elevated yolk levels may modulate offspring competition and/or facilitate brood reduction under harsh conditions in birds. Our data suggests that intra-clutch variation in yolk corticosterone has the potential to act as an adaptive maternal effect in species where modulation of competition between nest-bound offspring would benefit mothers (starlings and guillemots). However, in precocial species where mothers would not benefit from a modulation of offspring quality, intra-clutch variation in yolk hormones may play little or no adaptive role. While future phylogenetically-controlled studies will be helpful in examining questions of adaptive mechanisms once more data on yolk corticosterone becomes available, our results nonetheless suggest that research on the evolutionary role of yolk hormones can benefit by a priori incorporating species-specific life-history-driven hypotheses.