Brief increases in corticosterone affect morphology, stress responses, and telomere length, but not post-fledging movements, in a wild songbird

Research paper by Teresa M. Pegan, David W. Winkler, Mark F. Haussmann, Maren N. Vitousek

Indexed on: 31 Jul '18Published on: 31 Jul '18Published in: arXiv - Quantitative Biology - Tissues and Organs


Organisms are frequently exposed to challenges during development, such as poor weather and food shortage. Such challenges can initiate the hormonal stress response, which involves secretion of glucocorticoids. Although the hormonal stress response helps organisms deal with challenges, long-term exposure to high levels of glucocorticoids can have morphological, behavioral, and physiological consequences, especially during development. Glucocorticoids are also associated with reduced survival and telomere shortening. To investigate whether brief, acute exposures to glucocorticoids can also produce these phenotypic effects in free-living birds, we exposed wild tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor) nestlings to a brief exogenous dose of cort once per day for five days and then measured their morphology, baseline and stress-induced corticosterone levels, and telomere length. We also deployed radio tags on a subset of nestlings, which allowed us to determine the age at which tagged nestlings left the nest (fledged) and their pattern of presence and absence at the natal site during the post-breeding period. Corticosterone-treated nestlings had lower mass, higher baseline and stress-induced corticosterone, and reduced telomeres; other metrics of morphology were affected weakly or not at all. Our treatment resulted in no significant effect on survival to fledging, fledge age, or age at first departure from the natal site, and we found no negative effect of corticosterone on inter-annual return rate. These results show that brief acute corticosterone exposure during development can have measurable effects on phenotype in free-living tree swallows. Corticosterone may therefore mediate correlations between rearing environment and phenotype in developing organisms, even in the absence of prolonged stressors.