Juveniles exposed to embryonic corticosterone have enhanced flight performance.
ABSTRACT Exposure to maternally derived glucocorticoids during embryonic development impacts offspring phenotype. Although many of these effects appear to be transiently 'negative', embryonic exposure to maternally derived stress hormones is hypothesized to induce preparative responses that increase survival prospects for offspring in low-quality environments; however, little is known about how maternal stress influences longer-term survival-related performance traits in free-living individuals. Using an experimental elevation of yolk corticosterone (embryonic signal of low maternal quality), we examined potential impacts of embryonic exposure to maternally derived stress on flight performance, wing loading, muscle morphology and muscle physiology in juvenile European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Here we report that fledglings exposed to experimentally increased corticosterone in ovo performed better during flight performance trials than control fledglings. Consistent with differences in performance, individuals exposed to elevated embryonic corticosterone fledged with lower wing loading and had heavier and more functionally mature flight muscles compared with control fledglings. Our results indicate that the positive effects on a survival-related trait in response to embryonic exposure to maternally derived stress hormones may balance some of the associated negative developmental costs that have recently been reported. Moreover, if embryonic experience is a good predictor of the quality or risk of future environments, a preparative phenotype associated with exposure to apparently negative stimuli during development may be adaptive.
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ABSTRACT: Abstract 1. The objective of this study was to evaluate the effect of maternal stress induced by supplementing the hen's diet with 2 mg/hen/d dietary corticosterone (CORT) on embryonic development, biochemical blood parameters and hatching performance of broiler chicks. 2. A total of 200 Ross broiler breeder hens at 42 weeks of age were randomly divided into two groups: maternal stress (MS) or control. Hens in the MS were fed 2 mg /hen/d CORT for 14 d. Eggs (648 and 635 eggs for MS and control, respectively) were collected from d 3 to 14 of dietary CORT supplementation and incubated. Weights of embryo, chicks and organs and body composition were determined during incubation and at hatch. Biochemical blood parameters were measured at internal pipping stage and d of hatch. Hatching performance and embryonic mortalities were recorded. 3. Hens fed a diet supplemented with CORT had lighter body weight and produced less eggs at the end of the 14 d treatment period. Although MS embryos were heavier than control from 12 to 18 d of incubation, chick weight was similar at d of hatch. Lower relative weights for yolk sac and bursa were observed at 12 d of incubation for MS chicks compared to control. Chicks from both groups had similar body content in spite of higher fat content of MS embryos on d 18 of incubation. 4. MS had no effect on the duration of incubation or hatching performance but increased mortality at the pipping stage. 5. The results suggest that hormone-mediated maternal stress might affect embryonic development during incubation without adverse effect on chick weight and body composition.British Poultry Science 01/2014; · 1.15 Impact Factor
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ABSTRACT: Exposure to excess glucocorticoids (GCs) during embryonic development influences offspring phenotypes and behaviors and induces epigenetic modifications of the genes in the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and in the serotonergic system in mammals. Whether prenatal corticosterone (CORT) exposure causes similar effects in avian species is less clear. In this study, we injected low (0.2 μg) and high (1 μg) doses of CORT into developing embryos on day 11 of incubation (E11) and tested the changes in aggressive behavior and hypothalamic gene expression on posthatch chickens of different ages. In ovo administration of high dose CORT significantly suppressed the growth rate from 3weeks of age and increased the frequency of aggressive behaviors, and the dosage was associated with elevated plasma CORT concentrations and significantly downregulated hypothalamic expression of arginine vasotocin (AVT) and corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH). The hypothalamic content of glucocorticoid receptor (GR) protein was significantly decreased in the high dose group (p<0.05), whereas no changes were observed for GR mRNA. High dose CORT exposure significantly increased platelet serotonin (5-HT) uptake, decreased whole blood 5-HT concentration (p<0.05), downregulated hypothalamic tryptophan hydroxylase 1 (TPH1) mRNA and upregulated 5-HT receptor 1A (5-HTR1A) and monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A) mRNA, but not monoamine oxidase B (MAO-B). High dose CORT also significantly increased DNA methylation of the hypothalamic GR and CRH gene promoters (p<0.05). Our findings suggest that embryonic exposure to CORT programs aggressive behavior in the chicken through alterations of the HPA axis and the serotonergic system, which may involve modifications in DNA methylation.Hormones and Behavior 12/2013; · 3.74 Impact Factor
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ABSTRACT: Exposure to excess glucocorticoids during embryonic development affects offspring reproduction and suppresses the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis in mammals. However, whether corticosterone (CORT) causes similar effects in the chicken remains unclear. In the present study, we injected low (0.2 μg) and high (1 μg) doses of CORT in ovo before incubation and detected changes in aggressive behavior, tonic immobility (TI), reproductive performances, and HPG axis gene expression in posthatch chickens of different ages. High dose of CORT suppressed growth rate from 3 weeks of age, increased the frequency of aggressive behaviors, which was associated with elevated plasma CORT concentration. High-dose CORT significantly (P < 0.05) down-regulated arginine vasotocin (AVT), corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 (11β-HSD2) and gonadotropin-releasing hormone 1 (GnRH1), while significantly (P < 0.05) up-regulated gonadotropin-inhibitory hormone (GnIH) and 11β-HSD1 mRNA expression in the hypothalamus. Glucocorticoid receptor (GR) and 20-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (20-HSD) mRNA levels were not affected by CORT treatment. High-dose CORT significantly (P < 0.05) reduced egg production and egg quality, which was associated with decreased ovary and oviduct weight. Moreover, CORT exposure significantly decreased (P < 0.05) luteinizing hormone (LH) receptor and follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) receptor mRNA abundance in theca cells of ovarian follicles 1 (F1), F2 and F3. In addition, yolk CORT concentration was significantly higher in eggs laid by hens prenatally exposed to high-dose CORT. Our findings suggest that in ovo administration of CORT programs the aggressive behaviors and reproductive functions in the chicken through alterations of HPG axis.Animal reproduction science 01/2014; · 1.56 Impact Factor
Juveniles exposed to embryonic corticosterone
have enhanced flight performance
Eunice H. Chin1,†, Oliver P. Love2,†,*, Jan J. Verspoor2, Tony D. Williams2,
Kyle Rowley3and Gary Burness3
1Environmental and Life Sciences Graduate Program, and3Biology Department, Trent University,
Peterborough, Ontario, Canada K9J 7B8
2Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada V5A 1S6
Exposure to maternally derived glucocorticoids during embryonic development impacts offspring
phenotype. Although many of these effects appear to be transiently ‘negative’, embryonic exposure to
maternally derived stress hormones is hypothesized to induce preparative responses that increase survival
prospects for offspring in low-quality environments; however, little is known about how maternal stress
influences longer-term survival-related performance traits in free-living individuals. Using an experimental
elevation of yolk corticosterone (embryonic signal of low maternal quality), we examined potential impacts
of embryonic exposure to maternally derived stress on flight performance, wing loading, muscle morphology
and muscle physiology in juvenile European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Here we report that fledglings
exposed to experimentally increased corticosterone in ovo performed better during flight performance trials
than control fledglings. Consistent with differences in performance, individuals exposed to elevated
embryonic corticosterone fledged with lower wing loading and had heavier and more functionally mature
flight muscles compared with control fledglings. Our results indicate that the positive effects on a survival-
related trait in response to embryonic exposure to maternally derived stress hormones may balance some of
the associated negative developmental costs that have recently been reported. Moreover, if embryonic
experience is a good predictor of the quality or risk of future environments, a preparative phenotype
associated with exposure to apparently negative stimuli during development may be adaptive.
Keywords: yolk hormones; corticosterone; embryonic stress; flight performance; survival;
Maternally derived stress hormones (glucocorticoids)
significantly impact offspring phenotype across phylogen-
etically diverse taxa (McCormick 1998; Seckl 2004;
Uller & Olsson 2006; Love & Williams 2008a). Indeed,
a mother’s quality or the quality of the environment she
reproduces in can act as a maternal effect via embryonic
hormonal mechanisms (Gluckman et al. 2005; Love &
Williams 2008a,b). Embryos and foetuses can be exposed
to maternal stress hormones via the placenta in mammals
(see Seckl 2004) and via their presence in eggs of
oviparous species (Love et al. 2005; Saino et al. 2005;
Hayward et al. 2006; Lovern & Adams 2008). Embryonic
exposure to maternal glucocorticoids is known to cause
both short-term ‘transient’ and preparative ‘program-
ming’ effects in mammals and birds (Seckl 2004;
Gluckman et al. 2005; Love & Williams 2008b).
Immediate effects in free-living species can include
reductions in hatch or birth mass/structural size, reduced
growth, compromised immunity and even reduced
survival (Rubolini et al. 2005; Saino et al. 2005; Love &
Williams 2008a), whereas long-term effects can include
programming of key behavioural and physiological
pathways (Uller & Olsson 2006; Love & Williams 2008b).
Studies have recently begun to examine offspring
phenotypic responses to maternally derived yolk hor-
mones within an evolutionary framework (see Groothuis
et al. 2005; Love et al. 2005), and we are beginning to
understand the influence of these maternal effects on
fitness (Groothuis et al. 2005; Marshall & Uller 2007;
Love & Williams 2008a). However, it is not directly
obvious how many of the phenotypic responses studied
thus far (changes in body mass/size, growth and
immunity) affect fitness. Examining a trait that is
known to directly impact survival would significantly
increase our understanding of the relative evolutionary
and ecological importance of these maternal hormonal
effects. In birds, flight performance, including take-off
velocity and angle of trajectory, is a phenotypic trait with
likely fitness consequences (Lima 1993; Witter et al.
1994; Lee et al. 1996). Survival can be influenced by
initial take-off, as predator captures are reduced when
prey are fully airborne (Cresswell 1993). As post-fledging
predation-induced mortality can be high (Naef-Daenzer
et al. 2001), flight performance should be a heavily
selected trait during this life-history stage. Although
post-natal exposure to developmental stress is known to
affect muscle mass in juveniles (Lin et al. 2007) and
adults (Gray et al. 1990), with potential effects on muscle
metabolism (Lin et al. 2007), we know little to nothing of
the effects of embryonic stress on these performance-
Proc. R. Soc. B (2009) 276, 499–505
Published online 7 October 2008
*Author for correspondence (firstname.lastname@example.org).
†These authors have contributed equally to the production of this
Received 10 September 2008
Accepted 22 September 2008
This journal is q 2008 The Royal Society
Here we use an experimental manipulation of the
quality of the embryonic developmental environment to
examine how maternally derived yolk corticosterone
affects future flight performance in a free-living passerine,
the European starling (Sturnus vulgaris). We use yolk
corticosterone injections to manipulate embryonic
exposure to maternal stress (Love et al. 2005, 2008;
Love & Williams 2008a,b), a manipulation that is
biologically relevant since mothers in poor condition
(Love et al. 2005) and those that face increased predation
risk (Saino et al. 2005) appear to deposit more corticos-
terone into eggs. Recently, researchers have suggested that
embryonic exposure to maternal stress may provide
offspring with a signal of the quality of their future
environment (Love et al. 2005; Love & Williams 2008a)
and may even adaptively programme particular physio-
logical and behavioural pathways (Gluckman et al. 2005;
Love & Williams 2008b; Mathis et al. 2008). Embryonic
exposure to elevated maternally derived stress hormones
may therefore have the potential to match offspring flight
performance to the quality (i.e. risk of predation) of their
post-natal environment. If so, we would predict that
embryonic exposure to elevated maternally derived
corticosterone would increase future flight performance
2. MATERIAL AND METHODS
(a) Manipulation of embryonic stress
Research was conducted from April to July 2005 at Davistead
Dairy Farms in Langley, British Columbia, Canada under a
Simon Fraser University Animal Care permit (657B-96)
following guidelines of the Canadian Council on Animal
Care. Nest-boxes were checked daily to determine clutch
initiation, laying sequence and clutch completion dates.
Starlings at the field site lay 5.9G0.2 (meanGs.e.) eggs per
clutch within the main peak of laying, incubate for
10.3G0.1 days and fledge nestlings 22G0.9 days following
hatching (Love et al. 2005). Yolk corticosterone levels were
manipulated as per Love & Williams (2008a). Briefly, nests
were randomly divided into oil injected (nZ32) and
corticosterone injected (nZ32); an additional group of
unmanipulated eggs (nZ9) were also included (see ‘statistical
analysis’ section). Fresh eggs were injected within 3 hours of
laying and the corticosterone manipulation elevated mean yolk
corticosterone concentrations by 1.5 s.d. from the population
mean (from 15.4 to 28.3 ng gK1based on Love et al. 2008).
Just prior to hatching, eggs were exchanged with wooden eggs
and placed in an incubator until hatching. Hatchlings were
returned to their nest and nestling identity and age were
tracked using non-toxic food colouring and nestling-specific
feather trimming; at 10 days of age, chicks were banded to
allow for individual identification. All nestlings were weighed
and measured (exposed culmen, metatarsus, wing) at the ages
of 0, 5, 10, 15, 17 and 21 days; flattened wing cord
measurements began at 10 days when primary feathers
began to appear.
(b) Flight performance trials and characterization
of performance traits
Fledglings were collected from their nest-box on the morning
of the brood mean 21st day of age and placed in cloth bags
until the flight performance trials. The time in bags did not
exceed 60 min (groups not different in holding times: t-test,
tZ0.19, pZ0.42) and this short holding period is not
sufficient for transcription and translation of the subsequently
measured muscle enzymes. The performance chamber
consisted of a wooden frame 2.5!1!1 m covered with fine
plastic netting (top and left end), black plastic sheeting
(bottom), clear Plexiglas (front) and a white plastic back with
a 10!10 cm grid. Given the important difference between
alarmed and non-alarmed (also called routine or spon-
taneous) flight (Kullberg et al. 1996; Kullberg 1998; Veasey
et al. 1998; Nudds & Bryant 2002), we initially modelled our
chamber on that of Kullberg et al. (2002a,b), with the bird
being released at the bottom of the vertical chamber and
vertical take-off ability being measured during the simulated
escape flight. However, while this method was effective for
adult birds, fledglings proved incapable of sustained vertical
take-off. As such, the chamber was rotated to a horizontal
position. To ensure that take-off was independent of any
handling effects at the time of release, birds were introduced
into the chamber via a short (approx. 30 cm long) tube,
10 cm in diameter and aligned at a 308 incline designed to
simulate the first flight from the nest-box. Upon release, over
90 per cent of fledglings would launch into flight down the
chamber (after emerging from the ‘nest-hole’) and would fly
straight into the mesh at the end of the chamber (as though it
Flight was videotaped with a digital-8 video camera (Sony
TRV720; 30 frames sK1) placed 2 m from the front of the
chamber. To prevent habituation to the process, fledglings
were subjected to only two flight trials. After flight trials,
structural measurements (beak length, tarsus length, tail
feather length and flattened wing chord) and body mass (to
0.01 g) were collected. A digital photograph of the left wing
(standardized in a bent wing position against a scaled board)
was taken to calculate wing area (using the total pixel method
in PHOTOSHOP v. 7.0, Adobe Systems Inc.), which was used to
calculate wing loading, that is, the ratio of an individual’s
body weight to wing area (Pennycuick 1972). Birds were then
collected (University of British Columbia Animal Care
Permit, no. A04-0277), a subsample of the left pectoralis
major muscle was immediately collected and frozen in liquid
nitrogen for enzymatic analyses, and the carcasses were
immediately refrigerated. Within 2–3 hours, both the
pectoralis major and supracoracoideus muscles, which
together comprise the principal flight musculature, were
removed from the right side of the bird’s body via dissection.
Fresh muscle mass was recorded to 0.0001 g and the tissue
stored at K208C. Birds were visually sexed based on the
presence of testes or an ovary (confirmed via PCR sexing
techniques following Love et al. 2005). Muscles were freeze-
dried (Virtis Freezemobile model 8ES) and fat-extracted
using a Soxhlet apparatus with petroleum ether to determine
lean dry pectoral muscle (LDPM) mass.
Flight trials were analysed on a TV monitor. Vertical
displacements (to the nearest 2.5 cm) and associated times
(to the nearest quarter frame) were measured relative to the
10 cm grid at 0.5 m horizontal intervals,with the centre of the
head used as a reference. Flight time taken per interval was
thus calculated as the number offrames !1/30 s frameK1. As
the 0 m mark was set 0.21 m forward from where the bird
emerged, analysis began after approximately one wing beat
and once the bird’s feet had left the perch. These parameters
allowed the calculation of an average mechanical energy
per unit mass E ( J kgK1) for each interval according to the
500E. H. Chin et al.Embryonic stress enhances performance
Proc. R. Soc. B (2009)
equation from Williams & Swaddle (2003),
where Vxand Vzare the horizontal and vertical components
of flight velocity, respectively; g is the acceleration due to
gravity; and z is the height (Williams & Swaddle 2003). This
measure was chosen since it describes both the height and
velocity gain components of flight performance in a single
variable (Williams & Swaddle 2003). Therefore, the energy
gain between the first interval (0–0.5 m) and the third interval
(1–1.5 m) was determined and used for the purpose of our
study as a measure of overall flight performance (referred to
hereafter as ‘flight performance’). In all cases, the best
performance from the two trials was taken.
(c) Enzymatic assays
To better understand the enzymatic determinants of flight
performance, we measured the maximum catalytic activity of
key enzymes from various metabolic pathways. Assays were
performed at 408C using a Spectra Max Plus 384, 96-well
microplate reader (Molecular Devices, Sunnyvale, CA,
USA), and were adapted from Burness et al. (2005). Briefly,
frozen, powdered muscle samples were homogenized on ice
in 19 volumes of homogenization buffer (20 mM Hepes,
1 mM EDTA, 0.1% Triton-X 100, pH 7.0). 3-hydroxyacyl
CoA dehydrogenase (HOAD) and lactate dehydrogenase
(LDH) were assayed in 50 mM Imidazole (pH 7.0) at
340 nm; pyruvate kinase (PK) and creatine phosphokinase
(CPK) were assayed at pH 7.4. Citrate synthase (CS) was
assayed in 20 mM Tris (pH 8.0), 412 nm. Enzyme activities
are expressed as micromoles substrate converted to product
per minute per gram of tissue (U gK1). Assay conditions were
as follows: CS: 0.1 mM 5,50dithiobis (2-nitrobenzoic acid,
DTNB), 0.15 mM acetyl CoA and 0.5 mM oxaloacetate
(omitted from control). LDH: 0.15 mM NADH, 1 mM
pyruvate. PK: 0.15 mM NADH, 5 mM ADP, 100 mM KCl,
10 mMMgCl2, 10 mMfructose
5 mM phospho(enol)pyruvate, excess LDH. 3-HOAD:
0.15 mM NADH, 0.1% Triton X-100, 0.1 mM acetoacetyl
CoA (omitted from the control). CPK: 0.5 mM NAD, 1 mM
ADP, 5 mM glucose, 10 mM AMP, 5 mM MgCl2, 50 mM
phosphocreatine (PCr), excess hexokinase and glucose-
6-phosphate dehydrogenase. Protein content was determined
using a Bradford Assay (Bio-Rad Inc., Hercules, CA, USA).
(d) Statistical analysis
We used general linear mixed models to examine the effects
of experimental treatment on (i) flight performance and
(ii) traits predicted to influence flight performance. Traits
considered were body mass, LDPM and wing loading, and
factors related to muscle quality were water content, fat
content and metabolic enzyme activity. Treatment and sex
were included as fixed factors and all models were fitted using
the restricted maximum-likelihood procedure in JMP v. 6.0
(SAS Inc.), with ‘maternal identity’ specified as a random
factor nested within treatment to control for the non-
independence of siblings in the analysis. There was no
significant difference at fledging between individuals hatching
from oil-injected eggs and unmanipulated eggs for any of our
physiological, morphological or performance parameters
(each pO0.05; O.P. Love & T.D. Williams 2004, unpublished
data); groups were therefore pooled together and considered
together as control eggs.
There were no differences between treatments for the
following traits at hatching: hatching success, hatching
brood sizes and hatching brood sex ratios (Love &
Williams 2008a). There were also no differences for
parental feeding rates during development, nor for the
following traits at fledging: fledging success, body mass
and structural size (Love & Williams 2008a).
Fledglings from corticosterone-treated eggs performed
better during flight performance trials than did chicks from
control eggs (treatment: F1,34Z3.96, pZ0.05; sex!treat-
ment: F1,50Z0.06, pZ0.81; figure 1a). Corticosterone-
exposed fledglings had significantly heavier lean dry
pectoral muscles at fledging than control fledglings
controlling for body mass (treatment: F1,34Z10.65,
figure 1b), with females having heavier lean dry pectoral
muscles than males (F1,56Z4.08, pZ0.04, controlling for
body mass). The muscles of corticosterone-injected nest-
lings had a lower water content at fledging than control
fledglings (treatment: F1,34Z15.44, p!0.001; sex!treat-
ment: F1,57Z0.007, pZ0.93; figure 1c); that is, they
had greater functional maturity. Corticosterone-exposed
fledglings had a lower wing-loading than did control
nestlings (treatment: F1,34Z4.89, pZ0.033; sex!treat-
ment: F1,58Z0.32, pZ0.58; figure 1d) due to a larger wing
surface area (treatment: F1,34Z7.65, pZ0.009; sex!
treatment: F1,58Z0.11, pZ0.74). However, there was no
treatment difference in fat content (treatment: F1,34Z1.86,
pZ0.18; sex!treatment: F1,57Z1.08, pZ0.30).
Corticosterone-exposed fledglings had higher citrate
synthase (CS) activity (treatment: F1,21Z4.90, pZ0.04;
sex!treatment: F1,21Z0.20, pZ0.66; figure 2a), and
marginally higher creatine phosphokinase (CPK) activity
(treatment: F1,21Z3.86, pZ0.06; sex!treatment: F1,21Z
0.01, pZ0.92; figure 2b) than control chicks. No other
enzymes differed with treatment (all pO0.10). However,
when CS and CPK activity were corrected for muscle
protein content, there was no longer a significant effect of
treatment (each pO0.20). Thus, differences in enzyme
activity appear largely to reflect differences in the
functional maturity of the muscle.
(a) Stress-induced flexibility in offspring
We identified a positive effect of elevated embryonic
an increase in flight (escape) performance at fledging.
Mechanistically, our results indicate that the increased
performance was probably due to a combination of (i) an
acceleration of muscle development during the nestling
phase(resulting in an increase in pectoralmuscle mass and
higher muscle metabolic capacity at fledging) and (ii)
increased wing area (resulting in decreased wing loading).
ical machinery underlying flight was not affected by in ovo
corticosterone exposure in the same sex-specific manner
as recently reported for other traits, i.e. size at hatching,
growth, immune function and survival (Love et al.
2005; Hayward et al. 2006; Satterlee et al. 2007; Love &
Williams 2008a). These results appear to indicate
therefore that embryonic exposure to maternal stress has
Embryonic stress enhances performance
E. H. Chin et al.
Proc. R. Soc. B (2009)
sex-independent preparative effects on flight ability at
fledging, i.e. preparing for maximal flight performance in
response to a signal about the quality of the post-natal
environmentisequallyimportantfor bothsexes in starlings.
(b) Mechanisms behind stress-induced flexibility
in flight performance
Pectoral muscle mass and wing area are the two best
predictors of flight performance (Marden 1987; Verspoor
CS activity (µmol min–1 g–1 tissue)
CPK activity (µmol min–1 g–1 tissue)
Figure 2. Effects of embryonic exposure to elevated yolk corticosterone on (a) CS activity and (b) CPK activity in the pectoral
muscle of fledgling European starlings. Values are meanGs.e.m.; asterisk denotes p%0.05 for CS and p%0.06 for CPK.
muscle water content (%)
energy gain (j kg–1)
lean dry pectoral muscle (g)
Figure 1. Effects of embryonic exposure to elevated yolk corticosterone on (a) flight performance, (b) LDPM mass, (c) pectoral
muscle water content and (d) wing loading of fledgling European starlings. Values are meanGs.e.m.; asterisk denotes p%0.05.
502E. H. Chin et al.Embryonic stress enhances performance
Proc. R. Soc. B (2009)
et al. 2007). Consistent with this observation, fledglings
exposed to elevated corticosterone in ovo had heavier and
more functionally mature pectoral muscles (i.e. lower %
water content; see Ricklefs et al. 1998) relative to body
mass, and larger wing areas, compared with control
fledglings. We have previously shown that in ovo exposure
to corticosterone can have multiple downstream effects on
size, growth and physiological pathways at fledging
(Love & Williams 2008a,b). The underlying mechanisms
by which embryonic exposure to maternal stress alters
these pathways, as well as those of future muscle
development and feather growth reported here, are not
well investigated, and could include both direct and
indirect developmental pathways. Direct mechanisms
could include the known influence of glucocorticoids as
transcription factors, given that many genes have gluco-
corticoid response elements, and thus embryonic
exposure to elevated maternal stress hormones may have
positive downstream effects on development (for review
see Byrne 2001). Interestingly, however, these specific
‘positive’ effects of maternal glucocorticoids on muscle
and feather development temporally overlap with the
reported ‘negative’ effects of these hormones on size at
hatching/birth and growth (see Love et al. 2005; Rubolini
et al. 2005; Saino et al. 2005; Hayward et al. 2006; Love &
Williams 2008a). However, these glucocorticoid-induced
developmental processes are thought to occur through
inhibition of cell proliferation and the growth of specific
systems (Orth et al. 1992) via downregulation of growth
hormone and insulin-like growth factor activity, as well as
via a reduction in the ability to both self-regulate
glucocorticoid receptors (see Seckl 2004) and interact
with developmental thyroid hormones (De Jesus et al.
1990; Redding et al. 1991). Indirect mechanisms of
embryonic exposure to corticosterone could include
changes in the allocation of resources within nestlings
and changes in offspring behaviour brought about by the
effects of embryonic exposure on the adrenocortical axis
(Love & Williams 2008b), and even changes in the types
of food brought to offspring by parents. Separating
offspring from parents at hatch and raising nestlings
under similar captive conditions will help us understand
how embryonic developmental pathways are differentially
responsive to the same degree of maternally derived stress,
a fundamentally important step towards more fully
appreciating how offspring interpret, and respond to,
Together with heavier and functionally more mature
flight muscles, fledglings exposed to elevated corticoster-
one as embryos had correspondingly higher CS activity
per gram of tissue (that is, functionally more mature
tissue contained higher total enzymatic activity). Citrate
synthase is a Kreb’s cycle enzyme and its activity is used
as both an index of mitochondrial density (Guglielmo
et al. 2002) and oxidative capacity (Hohtola & Visser
1998). In muscle, CS activity has been correlated with
measures of whole-body aerobic capacity (VO2max) in
a variety of taxa, including birds (Hammond et al.
2000), and CS activity is upregulated in adult birds
in preparation for migration (Lundgren & Kiessling
1985). A more complete understanding of underlying
mechanisms may be obtained by also considering
anaerobic enzyme activity by examining CPK, since it
catalyses the conversion of PCr to creatine and inorganic
phosphate (Pi) under anaerobic conditions. Since muscle
PCr stores are rapidly depleted, hydrolysis of PCr can
only be used to power very brief periods of high-intensity
exercise and, as such, differences in CPK activity with
treatment would probably be manifested in our measures
of whole animal performance. Although marginally
significant, CPK activity was higher in corticosterone-
exposed fledglings than in controls, suggesting a bio-
chemical basis for the performance differences we
detected. The observation that enzyme activity differed
with treatment when expressed per gram wet mass of
tissue, but not when expressed per unit protein, is
informative. It suggests that differences in activity with
treatment were largely due to the functional maturity of
the muscle (i.e. % water content). Thus nestlings did not
functional maturity; corticosterone-exposed nestlings
appeared simply to add more of the same basic
components to build larger muscles.
(c) Positive effects of embryonic exposure
Many recent ecological studies examining the effects of
maternal stress on offspring report negative developmental
impacts on offspring phenotype (Love et al. 2005;
Rubolini et al. 2005; Saino et al. 2005; Hayward et al.
2006; Love & Williams 2008a), although transient effects
such as decreases in size and growth may have fitness
benefits when viewed in the longer term (Hayward et al.
2006; Love & Williams 2008a). Our results suggest that
the negative impacts of maternal stress on offspring size,
growth and immune function may be balanced by positive
effects on offspring performance. Importantly, this work
also emphasizes that embryonic exposure to the same
elevated levels of yolk corticosterone can have differential
effects on offspring phenotypic traits. Taken together,
these results suggest that it is relevant to view effects of
maternal stress on offspring in the longer term (from
parental independence and beyond) to interpret how
hormone-induced phenotypic flexibility might affect
fitness. Moreover, while these current results provide
tantalizing information indicating that maternally derived
stress hormones may provide an adaptive signal to the
developing offspring of the quality of its future environ-
ment (i.e. Love et al. 2005; Mathis et al. 2008), it
remains to be seen if embryonic exposure to glucocorti-
coids impacts offspring fitness (Breuner 2008; Love &
We thank the Davis family of Davistead Dairy Farms for their
support of our starling research. We also wish to thank E.
Rowland, L. Sheldon, K. Salvante, C. Stables and E. Wagner
for help with fieldwork, C. Semeniuk for use of her video
equipment and three anonymous reviewers for helping to
improve this paper. Research was funded by Natural Sciences
and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)
grants to T.D.W. and G.B., an NSERC postgraduate
scholarship award to E.H.C. and NSERC Undergraduate
Summer Research awards to J.J.V. and K.R.
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