Annual regulation of adrenocortical function in migrant and resident subspecies of white-crowned sparrow  

J.s. Krause, Z. Nemeth, Jonathan H. Pérez, Helen Chmura, KR Word, HJ Lau, Ryan E. Swanson, Jeffrey C. Cheah, LN Quach, Simone Meddle, J. C. Wingfield, Marilyn Ramenofsky

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Corticosterone affects physiology and behavior both during normal daily processes but also in response to environmental challenges and is known to mediate life history trade-offs. Many studies have investigated patterns of corticosterone production at targeted times of year, while ignoring underlying annual profiles. We aimed to understand the annual regulation of hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis function of both migrant (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii; n=926) and resident (Z. l. nutalli; n=688) subspecies of white-crowned sparrow and how it is influenced by environmental conditions – wind, precipitation, and temperature. We predicted that more dramatic seasonal changes in baseline and stress-induced corticosterone would occur in migrants to precisely time the onset of breeding and cope with environmental extremes on their arctic breeding grounds, while changes in residents would be muted as they experience a more forgiving breeding schedule and comparatively benign environmental conditions in coastal California. During the course of a year, the harshest conditions were experienced the summer breeding grounds for migrants, at which point they had higher corticosterone levels compared to residents. For residents, the winter months coincided with harshest conditions at which point they had higher corticosterone levels than migrants. For both subspecies, corticosterone tended to rise as environmental conditions became colder and windier. We found that the annual maxima in stress-induced corticosterone occurred prior to egg lay for all birds except resident females. Migrants had much higher baseline and acute stress-induced corticosterone during breeding compared to residents; where in a harsher environment the timing of the onset of reproduction is more critical because the breeding season is shorter. Interestingly, molt was the only stage within the annual cycle in which subspecies differences were absent suggesting that a requisite reduction in corticosterone may have to be met for feather growth. These data suggest that modulation of the HPA axis is largely driven by environmental factors, social cues, and their potential interactions with a genetic program.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHormones and Behavior
Early online date19 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021

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