Determinants of within- and among-clutch variation in yolk corticosterone
in the European starling
O.P. Lovea,⁎, K.E. Wynne-Edwardsb, L. Bondb, T.D. Williamsa
aDepartment of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British, Columbia, Canada V5A 1S6
bDepartment of Biology, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3N6
Received 19 July 2007; revised 28 August 2007; accepted 4 September 2007
Available online 19 September 2007
Maternal glucocorticoids are known to affect offspring phenotype in numerous vertebrate taxa. In birds, the maternal transfer of corticosterone to
eggs was recently proposed as a hormonal mechanism by which offspring phenotype is matched to the relative quality of the maternal environment.
However, current hypotheses lack supporting information on both intra- and inter-clutch variation in yolk corticosterone for wild birds. As such, we
examined variation in yolk corticosterone levels in a wild population of European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris). Maternal condition, clutch size and
nesting density were all negatively related to yolk corticosterone deposition; females with high condition indices, those laying larger clutches and
those nesting in high-density associations deposited lower amounts of the hormone into eggs than those with low condition indices, laying small
clutches and nesting in isolation. Alternatively, we found no effects of maternal age or human disturbance on yolk corticosterone deposition. Intra-
clutch variation of yolk corticosterone was significant, with levels increasing across the laying sequence in all clutch sizes examined, with the
difference between first and last-laid eggs being greater in large versus small clutches. Given the reported effects of yolk corticosterone on offspring
size and growth, intra-clutch variation in yolk corticosterone has the potential to alter the competitive environment within a brood. Furthermore, our
results indicate that variation in yolk corticosterone can originate from variation in both the mother's quality as well as the quality of her breeding
environment. The presence of inter-female variation in particular is an important pre-requisite in testing whether the exposure of offspring to
maternally-derived corticosterone is a mechanistic link between offspring phenotypic plasticity and maternal quality.
© 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Corticosterone; Yolk hormones; Maternal effects; Nesting density; Maternal condition; Laying order; European starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
How and why maternal stress hormones affect offspring
phenotype has become a subject of considerable interest in
studies spanning numerous vertebrate taxa (e.g., Seckl, 2001;
Cree et al., 2003; Love et al., 2005; Meylan and Clobert, 2005;
Pike and Petrie, 2006; Uller and Olsson, 2006). In birds,
corticosterone serves to mediate adaptive physiological and
behavioral responses to ‘stressful’ events (Wingfield et al.,
1998; Sapolsky et al., 2000; Wingfield, 2005) within the larger
context of the hormone's role in maintaining daily homeostatic
energetic balance (Harvey et al., 1984; Dallman et al., 1993;
Remage-Healey and Romero, 2001). In adult females, both
short-term and life-history stage-related changes in corticoste-
rone secretion may play adaptive roles (Wingfield et al., 1997;
Moore and Jessop, 2003; Love et al., 2004) and baseline
corticosterone can be influenced by social encounters (DeVries
et al., 2003; Goymann and Wingfield, 2004). However, mater-
nal glucocorticoids are also readily (apparently in direct relation
to maternal plasma levels, see Love et al., 2005) transferred
from mother to egg via the yolk during laying (McCormick,
1998; Hayward and Wingfield, 2004; Hayward et al., 2005;
Love et al., 2005; Navara et al., 2006). Furthermore, embryos
appear sensitive to maternal glucocorticoids during develop-
ment and express many phenotypic changes in response to ex-
posure in a wide range of vertebrate taxa: reduced body masses
upon hatching or parturition, reduced postnatal growth rates and
Available online at www.sciencedirect.com
Hormones and Behavior 53 (2008) 104–111
⁎Corresponding author. Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser
University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, B.C., Canada V5A 1S6. Fax: +1
778 782 3496.
E-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org (O.P. Love).
0018-506X/$ - see front matter © 2007 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
long-term ‘fetal programming’ effects on behavior and
physiology (e.g., fish: McCormick, 1998, 1999; reptiles:
Sinervo and DeNardo, 1996; Cree et al., 2003; Meylan and
Clobert, 2005; birds: Hayward and Wingfield, 2004; Love et al.,
2005; Rubolini et al., 2005; Saino et al., 2005; and mammals:
review in Seckl, 2001). Given that mothers must balance
multiple potential costs and benefits of corticosterone during
reproduction (Love et al., 2004), it is important to understand
why, in an evolutionary sense, mothers allow their offspring to
be exposed to corticosterone via its transfer to the egg (Hayward
and Wingfield, 2004; Love et al., 2005; Saino et al., 2005). To
properly understand this, it is important to determine what
causes variation in yolk corticosterone both across females and
A decrease in the quality of many environmental variables is
associated with elevated plasma levels of corticosterone in
vertebrates: (1) low quality nutritional resources and declines in
body condition (Holberton et al., 1996; Kitaysky et al., 1999a,b,
2001, 2006; Love et al., 2005), (2) poor quality habitats (Marra
and Holberton, 1998; Suorsa et al., 2003; Kitaysky et al., 2006),
(3) exposure to severe weather conditions (Wingfield et al.,
1997; Romero et al., 2000; Breuner and Hahn, 2003), (4) in-
creased predation risk (Boonstra et al., 1998; Cockrem and
Silverin, 2002; Clinchy et al., 2004), (5) exposure to human
disturbance (Fowler, 1999; Creel et al., 2002; Müllner et al.,
2004; Walker et al., 2005; Lucas et al., 2006; Pereira et al.,
2006) and (6) exposure to socially dominant conspecifics (Creel
et al., 1996; DeVries et al., 2003; Goymann and Wingfield,
2004). With this information as a basis, it has been suggested
that the phenotypic effects of maternal glucocorticoids on
offspring may be a mechanistic link between maternal and
offspring quality (de Fraipont et al., 2000; Seckl, 2001; Love
et al., 2005; Meylan and Clobert, 2005). For example, using an
experimental field study in laying wild European starlings
(Sturnus vulgaris), Love et al. (2005) found that the transfer of
maternal corticosterone to yolks resulted in female-biased sex
ratios and lower male quality at hatching and during de-
velopment. The authors suggested that yolk corticosterone may
represent a mechanistic link between maternal quality and sex-
biased maternal investment in offspring, a potentially ubiqui-
tous sex allocation mechanism across avian species (Pike and
Petrie, 2003, 2005a, 2005b). Alternatively, the maternal transfer
of corticosterone to offspring may instead represent a de-
velopmental cost to the offspring that mothers cannot avoid
(Rubolini et al., 2005; Saino et al., 2005; Janczak et al., 2006)
due to hormonal constraints (see Ketterson and Nolan, 1999).
This could arise from both the potential pleiotropic effects of
hormones (Ketterson and Nolan, 1999; Williams, 2005) andthat
mothers may not be able to buffer eggs from high maternal
plasma levels of corticosterone (Saino et al., 2005; although see
Cree et al., 2003; Love et al., 2005).
In this study, we measured intra- and inter-clutch variation in
yolk corticosterone levels in eggs of wild European starlings, a
facultatively polygynous cavity-nesting bird (Cabe, 1993). We
predicted significant inter-female differences in yolk cortico-
sterone (representing inherent variation in both the internal and
external maternal environment). More specifically, since yolk
corticosterone can be negatively related to maternal condition in
starlings through a direct relationship with maternal plasma
corticosterone (Love et al., 2005), we predicted that traits
related to maternal quality (i.e., maternal condition, clutch size,
age) and the quality of the breeding environment (degree of
human disturbance, nesting density) would be correlated with
yolk corticosterone levels (e.g., positive for nesting density and
human disturbance and negative for age, clutch size and
maternal condition). Furthermore, based on the hypothesized
cumulative energetic costs for the formation and maintenance of
the reproductive machinery and the developing follicles in egg-
producing female passerines (e.g., Nilsson and Råberg, 2001;
Vézina and Williams, 2002; Vézina et al., 2003), we also
predicted an increase in yolk corticosterone levels across the
laying sequence due to potential increases in maternal plasma
corticosterone across the laying sequence.
Study species, site and egg collection
Research was carried out at the Davistead Dairy Farm in Langley, British
Columbia, Canada (49°10′ N, 122°50′ W), a site consisting of 225 nest boxes
used yearly by breeding starlings. All work was conducted between April and
the beginning of June (the breeding period within which pairs successfully
fledge at least one nestling) of 2004 under a Simon Fraser University Animal
Care permit (657B-96), following guidelines of the Canadian Council on
Animal Care. Starlings at this site lay 5.9±0.2 (mean±SEM) eggs per clutch
within the synchronous peak of laying (covers 7–8 days; Love et al., 2005;
Smith, 2004), incubate for 10.3±0.1 days and fledge nestlings 21±0.6 days
following hatching (Love et al., 2005). Nest boxes were checked daily to
determine clutch initiation and clutch completion dates as well as the laying
sequence of eggs. To examine both intra- and inter-individual variation in yolk
corticosterone levels, freshly laid eggs for a given clutch were collected daily
(within 2–5 h of being laid) when females were foraging away from their nests
(in order to eliminate possible disturbance effects on yolk corticosterone levels
in subsequent eggs) and replaced with dummy eggs for 30 individual female
starlings. Fresh eggs were marked and measured and immediately stored whole
at −20 °C until further analysis, as suggested in Eising et al. (2001). These
starlings (n=29; one could not be caught) were captured 2–3 days after
completing their clutch of eggs while roosting in their nest box at night (usually
between 2000 and 2400 h) when baseline corticosterone levels in starlings are at
their daily mean with respect to daily variation (Romero and Remage-Healey,
2000). Since corticosterone increases rapidly in birds following capture
(Romero and Romero, 2002), we blood sampled all birds from the wing vein
within 2 min of capture to insure we measured baseline levels. We detected no
effect of time after capture (within 0–2 min interval) on baseline corticosterone
levels in initial blood samples (R2=0.05, P=0.86) and therefore samples were
considered to reflect baseline corticosterone levels. Birds were subsequently
weighed, measured (exposed culmen, flattened wing cord and tarsus) and metal-
banded (permit #10646) for individual identification. A throat feather was also
removed to age females (either hatch year or after-hatch year) based on the
length of the iridescent portion of each feather following Pyle (1997).
Plasma and yolk corticosterone determination
The concentration of total corticosterone (see Breuner and Orchinik, 2002;
Love et al., 2004, 2005) in both plasma and yolks was determined using a
corticosterone EIA (0.31% cross-reactivity with testosterone; Assay Designs
Inc., MI, USA) with a 4-parameter logistic fit. Assay sensitivity was 32 through
20,000 pg/well and all determinations fell within this range. Yolks were
bisected, making sure to include all yolk layers, and were then extracted prior to
assay by the methods outlined in Love et al. (2005). Briefly, following
equilibration with distilled/deionized (dd) water, dilution with distilled-in-glass
105O.P. Love et al. / Hormones and Behavior 53 (2008) 104–111
(DIG) methanol and centrifugation at 1500×g for 7 min under refrigeration (2±
1.5 °C), supernatant was extracted on C18 columns (IS2200050C Isolute® SPE
columns, Chromatographic Specialties, Inc., Brockville, ON) under vacuum
filtration. Columns were primed with DIG methanol, followed by dd water,
followed by the entire 10 ml sample volume, and then washed with dd water.
Corticosteronewas elutedwith5ml of90%methanolinto 7mlborosilicatevials
(03-337-26, Fisher). Each sample was evaporated to dryness under a stream of
air and reconstituted in 1.2 ml of assay buffer (5% ethanol) prior to being
quantified in triplicate on a single plate of the corticosterone EIA. As internal
controls, seven additional yolks were used to quantify extraction efficiency. The
seven yolks were mixed by hand using a mortar and pestil on dry ice and 12
fractions were weighed from the combined yolk and thereafter treated as
independent yolk samples. After dilution into a total volume of 2 ml, six of the
12 samples were spiked with a 5 ng/ml bolus of corticosterone in a 200 μl
volume drawn from commercial standards from a Corticosterone I125RIA kit
(ICN, Orangeburg, NY) and the remaining six samples were spiked with 200 μl
of assay diluent from the same kit. The resulting samples settled overnight and
were handled exactly the same way as the unknown yolk determinations so that
the controls contained raw yolk, or raw yolk plus 5 ng of corticosterone. Each
assay contained three replicates of both the un-spiked control and spiked yolks
for the correct calculation of both intra- and inter-assay variation, respectively.
Corticosterone concentration in the raw yolk was 15.25±0.64 ng/g (mean±
SEM), with an average intra-assay variation of 7.6% and an average inter-assay
variation of 8.9%. Average recovery of the 5 ng spike in the six replicates was
94.6±2.9%. Values are reported as corrected for the recovery efficiency.
We used a GLMM (General Linear Mixed Model) to analyze variation in
yolk corticosterone by including maternal age, clutch size and human
disturbance as fixed factors and laying order, maternal body condition index
and nesting density index as covariates; maternal identity was included as a
random factor. Given the previously reported relationship between maternal
plasma and yolk corticosterone in this species and the hypothesis that maternal
levels are thought to directly influence yolk levels (Love et al., 2005), we
thought it prudent to correct yolk corticosterone values for the influence of
maternal levels (residual yolk corticosterone) rather than merely include
maternal plasma corticosterone as another independent variable in the analysis.
However, we present results for both corrected and absolute yolk corticosterone
levels in the results section. Furthermore, we carried out these analyses for both
(1) the concentration of corticosterone per gram of yolk and (2) total yolk
corticosterone per egg to account for potential differences between absolute
concentrations and hormone levels that particular nestlings may be exposed to,
respectively. We focused on yolk rather than egg mass since yolk mass is highly
correlated with egg mass in our population (linear regression analysis: R2=0.96,
n=196 eggs from 48 clutches) and is the focus target of hormone deposition in
this study. We used the REstricted Maximum Likelihood (REML) method in
JMP 6.0 (SAS Inc., 2006) and all possible interactions (three- and two-way)
between factors and covariates were initially included in the model. For
comparison of the percent difference in yolk corticosterone between first- and
last-laid eggs, we first transformed the proportion data using an arcsine-root
transformation (since the proportion data were not normally distributed) and
then used a one-way ANOVA to analyze for differences between clutch sizes.
Maternal body condition index (body mass corrected for body size) was
calculated by taking the residuals of a linear regression between body mass
against the first principal component score (PC1) calculated from a principal-
component analysis (PCA) for body size based on exposed culmen, tarsus and
flattenedwing cord as describedin Loveet al. (2005). Nestingdensity index was
calculated as the total number of active nests (nest with a concurrently laying
femalepresentwithina radiusof10 mfromthe focalnestbox)giventhatnesting
density has been reported to influence yolk androgen deposition through
potential inter-female interactions (Groothuis and Schwabl, 2002; Pilz and
Smith, 2004). Nest boxes were categorized as being located in one of two
locations on the farm receiving different degrees of daily human disturbance
(i.e., either within the core area of the working farm and at a dairy barn visited
daily by farm workers or in field locations away from any human contact).
Although the a priori expectation was that nest boxes used in the human-
associated farm areas would experience more human activity than boxes
mounted in field locations, we used behavioral observations (as part of ongoing
provisioning studies) during the 2002, 2003 and 2004 field seasons to confirm
this prediction. Observations were made over three consecutive days when
boxes in these areas contained nestlings aged 6–10 days (see Chin et al., 2005;
Love et al., 2005), although daily human activity patterns at the farm do not
change during the period when birds are laying to when nestlings are fledging.
Statistical relationship between residual yolk corticosterone levels and various
traits measured in European starlings
Clutch size (4)
Clutch size (5)
Clutch size (6)
⁎Slope when compared to a clutch size of six eggs.
Fig. 1. Laying sequence-specific patterns of yolk corticosterone levels (ng/g of
yolk) (A) and total yolk corticosterone (ng per yolk) (B) in European starling
eggs in relation to clutch size (mean±SEM are shown); laying order effects for
both dependent variables Pb0.0001, B is the slope of the laying order effect
across the laying sequence±SEM.
106 O.P. Love et al. / Hormones and Behavior 53 (2008) 104–111
Observations from boxes located in human-associated areas (n=143) and in
field locations (n=86) confirmed that the former experienced significantly more
hours of daily human disturbance (ANCOVA: F1,221=5.65, P=0.018, con-
trolling for laying date). As such, we felt confident in identifying these two areas
as distinct categories of human disturbance levels. All reported means are given
as the mean±SEM.
Yolk corticosterone concentrations (ng/g of yolk) showed a
normal distribution within the clutches examined (Shapiro–Wilk
W test, controlling for nest origin; w=0.74,P=0.62; n=148 eggs
from 30 nests) with the mean level of yolk corticosterone across
females being 15.34±0.66 ng/g of yolk. Average yolk cortico-
sterone in eggs was significantly negatively related to maternal
b=−0.53). Although results are similar whether absolute or
plasma-corrected yolk corticosterone was included as the
dependent variable, we report results for both to be conservative;
figures for corrected yolkcorticosteroneare reportedbecause this
found no effects of laying order on yolk mass (F5,52=1.02,
models were produced regardless of whether the dependent
variable was the concentration of corticosterone per gram of yolk
of the variance in residual yolk corticosterone contributed by
individual female component and 75.9% by the independent
variables component in the model; for absolute yolk corticoste-
rone levels, the best model produced an adjusted R2=0.67, with
27.2% of the variance in yolk corticosterone contributed by
individual female component and 72.8% by the independent
variables. We found a strong effect of laying order (F5,54=34.3,
Pb0.0001; b=2.46, Table 1, Fig. 1), clutch size (F2,11=7.5,
Pb0.01; b=1.68 for 4 eggs, b=1.97 for 5 eggs and b=0 for 6
eggs, Table 1, Fig. 2), maternal condition index (F1,11=9.36,
P=0.01; b=−3.56, Table 1, Fig. 3) and nesting density
(F5,6=4.6, Pb0.05; b=−1.16, Table 1, Fig. 4) on residual yolk
corticosterone levels. Results were very similar for absolute yolk
corticosterone, with a strong effect of laying order (F5,54=23.4,
Pb0.0001; b=2.41),clutch size (F2,11=7.1,P=0.01;b=1.61 for
4 eggs, b=1.81 for 5 eggs and b=0 for 6 eggs), maternal con-
(F5,6=4.4, P=0.05; b=−1.48). Neither maternal age nor human
disturbance index showed any relationship to yolk corticosterone
levels (residual yolk corticosterone: both PN0.70; absolute yolk
corticosterone: both PN0.81) and we found no significant
interactions of any kind between factors or covariates for either
dependent variable. Finally, we found that the difference in both
residual and absolute yolk corticosterone between the first- and
Fig. 2. Mean yolk corticosterone levels (ng/g yolk) and percent difference in
yolk corticosterone between first- and last-laid eggs of European starling eggs in
the three clutch sizes examined in this study (numbers over bars represent
number of clutches used, n=30 clutches in total and mean±SEM are shown).
Fig. 3. Relationship between maternal condition and mean yolk corticosterone
levels (ng/g of yolk) per clutch for individual female European starlings (n=29
clutches; Pb0.01, B is the slope of the maternal condition relationship±SEM).
Fig. 4. Relationship between nesting density and mean yolk corticosterone
levels (ng/g of yolk) per clutch for individual female European starlings (n=30
clutches; Pb0.05, B is the slope of the nesting density relationship±SEM).
107O.P. Love et al. / Hormones and Behavior 53 (2008) 104–111
last-laid egg in a clutch was greater in larger versus smaller
clutches (residual: F2,15=11.7, Pb0.001, Fig. 2; absolute:
Data on yolk corticosterone have been published for seven
avian species to date, four domestic, one captive and only two
wild; data on albumin corticosterone have been reported for
three species, one domestic and two wild (Table 2). Yolk
corticosterone levels in the domestic species are relatively low
compared to the reported levels for captive and wild species.
Unfortunately, this species sample is biased toward the Galli-
formes and especially toward human-exposed animals that
generally show lower levels of plasma corticosterone due to
potential habituation effects on the stress axis (see Romero and
Wikelski, 2002; Love et al., 2003; Walker et al., 2006).
We found a negative relationship between plasma and yolk
corticosterone, with mothers that had deposited the highest
levels into eggs having the lowest plasma levels by clutch
completion. Although we have previously reported a positive
relationship between these two traits in this species when
comparing maternal plasma corticosterone collected at the
beginning of laying to the yolk corticosterone deposited in the
first-laid egg (Love et al., 2005), the plasma samples in the
present study were collected when the clutch had been
completed. In support of the present findings, the same negative
relationship between yolk testosterone and maternal plasma
testosterone sampled at clutch completion was reported recently
in house sparrows (Passer domesticus) by Mazuc et al. (2003).
Recently, Navara and colleagues (2006) proposed a mechanism
for this relationship in that the yolk may act as a reservoir for the
deposition of maternal-derived steroid hormones. If this is
possible, it suggests that mothers depositing high levels into
yolks may be left with a temporary deficit of the hormone in the
plasma immediately following laying. Alternatively, since
elevated plasma corticosterone is controlled through a negative
feedback pathway (Romero, 2004), elevated plasma levels
during laying may be decreased through this feedback by clutch
completion. Although more work will be needed to examine
this phenomenon more carefully, our results combined with
those of other wild species indicate that significant amounts of
corticosterone can be transferred from mother to offspring via
the yolk. However, a more varied examination of inter-specific
variation in yolk corticosterone levels will be necessary to
separate phylogenetic versus methodological differences be-
Inter-female variation in yolk corticosterone: condition and
Maternally derived yolk corticosterone has been hypothe-
sized to provide a hormonal mechanism by which mothers can
adjust investment in offspring to match maternal and/or
environmental quality (Love et al., 2005). For this to be the
case, the quality of the mother and the environment she
reproduces in should correlate with corticosterone levels
deposited in the egg, of which there is already some evidence
(Love et al., 2005; Saino et al., 2005). We predicted that traits
predicted to correlate with maternal quality would be negatively
related to yolk corticosterone deposition. Indeed, mothers with
low condition indices laid eggs with high levels of yolk
corticosterone. These results support those of Love et al. (2005)
who found that low maternal condition was correlated with high
maternal plasma corticosterone measured at the first-egg stage
and that females with experimentally elevated plasma cortico-
sterone transferred elevated corticosterone levels to yolks. We
also found that yolks contained lower levels of corticosterone in
large versus smaller clutches and this is in concordance with the
finding that in starlings high quality mothers produce the largest
clutches (Christians et al., 2001). However, we did not find a
relationship between maternal age and yolk corticosterone as
previously reported for yolk androgens in this species (Pilz
et al., 2003), nor did we find an effect of human disturbance on
yolk corticosterone as recently reported by Saino et al. (2005) in
barn swallows (Hirundo rustica). These results may be due
to the combination of the overriding influences of maternal
condition and clutch size rather than age per se on yolk corti-
costerone deposition, as well as the potential predictability of
the human disturbance by birds nesting in these locations.
Indeed, whereas Saino and colleagues examined relatively
undisturbed birds following an acute experimental disturbance,
Corticosterone levels (from yolk and albumin) in the eggs of avian species
Species PopulationSource Levels (mean±SEM)Reference
Chicken (Gallus domesticus)
Chicken (Gallus domesticus)
Japanese quail (Coturnix c. japonica)
Canary (Serinus canaria)
Zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata)
Peafowl (Pavo cristatus)
Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis)
European starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
European starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)
Yellow-legged gull (Larus michahellis)
References: (1) Eriksen et al., 2003, (2) Janczak et al., 2006, (3) Hayward et al., 2006, (4) Schwabl, 1993, (5) Pike and Petrie, 2005b, (6) Navara et al., 2006, (7) Love
et al., 2005, (8) Present study, (9) Saino et al., 2005, (10) Rubolini et al., 2005.
108 O.P. Love et al. / Hormones and Behavior 53 (2008) 104–111
the starlings in the high-human disturbance areas had already
chosen to nest in these locations. In other words, we worked
with individuals of a species known to be well adapted to
chronic and predictable disturbance and therefore they may
show little or no effects of the chronic disturbance compared
with the acute effects on the stress axis reported in other species
We initially predicted that the type of social environment a
mother reproduces in would be positively related to yolk
corticosterone deposition, with higher nesting density resulting
in more aggressive interactions and therefore higher yolk
corticosteronelevels.Indeed, females nestinginhigher densities
or those experiencing high levels of inter-female aggressive
interactions lay eggs with elevated yolk androgens in a number
of avian species (Schwabl, 1997; Groothuis and Schwabl, 2002;
Wittingham and Schwabl, 2002; Pilz and Smith, 2004; Navara
et al., 2006). However, female starlings nesting in high density
associationsdepositedlesscorticosterone into eggsthanfemales
nesting in isolation, independent of clutch size and maternal
condition (two measures of quality). Although it is well known
that dominance hierarchies in social species can result in higher
levels of glucocorticoids in individuals (Creel et al., 1996;
DeVries et al., 2003; Goymann and Wingfield, 2004), European
starlings are a semi-colonial-nesting species (Cabe, 1993). As
such, higher nest-site densities may in fact be preferable to
starlings by potentially decreasing adult predation risk through
increased group vigilance (see Krebs and Davies, 1987). In
captive starlings, exposure of a resident bird to a conspecific
the resident (Nephew and Romero, 2003). Furthermore, an
experimental nest intrusion experiment in wild eastern bluebirds
did not result in higher yolk corticosterone levels (Navara et al.,
2006). If higher nesting density results in lower adult predation
risk, adult laying females may be less physiologically ‘stressed’
given that interaction with predators can increase both plasma
corticosterone in adults (Cockrem and Silverin, 2002; Clinchy
et al., 2004) and albumin corticosterone in eggs (Saino et al.,
2005). Indeed, there is some evidence that in colonial and com-
munally nesting species, mothers can change egg quality de-
pending on their perception of the quality of the social
environment (Macedo et al., 2004; Verboven et al., 2005). Our
results on inter-individual differences in yolk corticosterone
deposition suggest that there can be both a significant maternal
quality and surrounding maternal environmental quality com-
ponent contributing to variation in the yolk corticosterone.
Intra-clutch variation and implications for offspring
Laying sequence data in starlings suggest that yolk cortico-
sterone variessignificantly acrosseggswithina clutch, a trait that
has received significant attention in research on variation in yolk
androgens (review in Groothuis et al., 2005; Badyaev et al.,
2006). Our results indicate that the difference in yolk corticoste-
rone between first- and last-laid eggs was as little as 35% in four-
egg clutches and as much as 82% in six-egg clutches. The result
would be a greater disparity in yolk corticosterone between first-
developing from later-laid eggs are therefore exposed to much
higher yolk corticosterone levels than their earlier-laid siblings.
Given the well documented effects of maternally transferred egg
corticosterone on offspring phenotype in birds (Eriksen et al.,
2003; Hayward and Wingfield, 2004; Love et al., 2005; Rubolini
et al., 2005; Saino et al., 2005; Janczak et al., 2006; Hayward
et al., 2006), it is plausible to predict significant hormone-
a brood (Love et al., 2005; Saino et al., 2005). For example,
nestlings from later-laid eggs exposed to high levels of the
be out-competed by larger offspring hatched from earlier-laid
eggs (see Love et al., 2005). The result would be a hormonal
mechanism mediating brood reduction when environmental
conditions during chick-rearing are poor or in habitats where
the correlation between environmental quality at laying and
conditions during chick-rearing might be low and unpredictable
(Nager et al., 2000). Those females with large brood sizes would
especially benefit from a rapid mechanism of brood reduction
(i.e., Lack, 1947, 1954) if environmental quality decreased from
laying to hatching, allowing a mother to maximize the quality of
the young she does fledge. Practically speaking, it is difficult at
this point to determine the source of such intra-clutch variation in
yolkcorticosterone. One possible ‘passive’ source isthe potential
costs of forming and maintaining the reproductive machinery,
developing follicles and eggs (Nilsson and Råberg, 2001; Vézina
and Williams, 2002; Vézina et al., 2003), or the indirect costs
associated with increased predation risk from elevated body
weight due to the added mass of the reproductive machinery
during the laying period (Lee et al., 1996; Kullberg et al., 2002,
2005). Since plasma glucocorticoids are tightly tied to homeo-
static energy balance (Harvey et al., 1984; Dallman et al., 1993;
Remage-Healey and Romero, 2001), an increase in maternal
energetic deficits across laying may hormonally manifest itself in
both increasing maternal plasma and yolk corticosterone levels
across the laying sequence. Maternal ‘control’ over these intra-
clutch patterns (see Groothuis et al., 2005 for a review of the
debate on maternal control) is therefore not a prerequisite for
intra-clutch variation in yolk corticosterone to be adaptive from
the mother's standpoint. Mothers laying larger clutches deposit
morehormone intolater-laid eggs(as shown inthe present study)
and the difference between first- and last-laid eggs would
hypothetically benefit these mothers during periods when
offspring competition is intense through rapid, yolk corticoste-
rone-mediated brood reduction. Although this and many other
questions remain regarding the evolutionary role of maternally
derived yolk glucocorticoids, their transfer to eggs provides an
exciting system in which to examine the relationship between
maternal quality and phenotypic plasticity of offspring.
We are grateful to the Davis family at Davistead Dairy
Farms, Langley, British Columbia for their generous support of
our starling field research. We would also like to thank E. Chin,
C. Semeniuk and E. Wagner for significant help in overall field
109O.P. Love et al. / Hormones and Behavior 53 (2008) 104–111
work. Finally, we would like to thank C. Semeniuk, E. Wagner
and two anonymous reviewers for invaluable comments and
contributions that greatly improved this work. This research was
funded by operating Natural Sciences and Engineering
Research Council of Canada (NSERC) grants to K.E.W.E and
T.D.W. and summer undergraduate NSERC awards to E. Chin
and E. Wagner.
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