Weathering the storm: Do Arctic blizzards cause repeatable changes in stress physiology and body condition in breeding songbirds?

Jessie Krause, Jonathan Perez, Helen Chmura, Simone Meddle, Kathleen Hunt, Laura Gough, Natalie Boelman, J. C. Wingfield

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Severe weather events are increasing worldwide because of climate change. To cope with severe weather events, vertebrates rely on the stress response which is activated by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to adjust physiology and behavior. Previous studies have detailed changes in baseline concentrations of the stress hormone corticosterone during a single storm event while little data exists on how stress physiology and body condition are adjusted as the storm progresses across multiple days. This represents a serious gap in our understanding of how birds respond physiologically over the duration of a storm. We documented arctic snowstorms that occurred over five consecutive years that were endured by Lapland longspurs (Calcarius lapponicus; 2012-2016) and in three consecutive years by white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii; 2014-2016). Data were collected on storm-free days, during snowstorms ranging in length from 1-3 days, and the day immediately following a snowstorm. The specific aims were to understand how stress physiology, measured at baseline and in response to restraint handling, and body condition changed over multiple days of the storm, and if these responses were consistent across years. Snowstorms did not affect baseline corticosterone concentrations for either species except for female Lapland longspurs and male white-crowned sparrows in 2014. Lapland longspurs, regardless of sex, increased stress-induced (restraint handling) corticosterone in response to snowstorms in all years but 2013, which was characterized by unusually harsh conditions. Both sexes of White-crowned sparrows showed a significant increase in the stress-induced levels of corticosterone during snowstorms in one of the three years of the study. Stress-induced corticosterone concentrations were only different across each day of the storm in one year of the study for Lapland longspurs. Changes in fat and body mass were not uniform across years, but measurable increases in fat stores and body mass were detected in males of both species during the first day of a snowstorm with declines typically occurring by the second day. Our study showed that severe weather events often caused rapid increases in HPA axis activity and body condition, but these profiles are likely dependent upon ecological and environmental context within the breeding season.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)183-192
JournalGeneral And Comparative Endocrinology
Early online date19 Jul 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2018


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