Chronic stress in free-living European starlings reduces corticosterone concentrations and reproductive success
Chronic increases in stress hormones such as glucocorticoids are maladaptive, yet studies demonstrating a causal relationship among chronic stress, increases in glucocorticoid concentrations, and subsequent fitness costs in free-living animals are lacking. We experimentally induced chronic psychological stress in female European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) by subjecting half of the females at our study site to a chronic stress protocol consisting of 4, 30 min stressors (loud radio, predator calls, a novel object, or predator decoys including a snake, rat, and owl) administered in random order daily for 8 days after clutch completion. Experimental females were captured at the end of the chronic stress protocol (9 days after the onset of the chronic stress protocol), and unstressed control females were captured at the same stage of the nesting cycle. Chronically stressed females had lower baseline corticosterone (CORT, the avian glucocorticoid) concentrations and lower reproductive success than unstressed females. Furthermore, surviving nestlings in experimentally stressed broods showed sensitization of the CORT response to acute stress, which is a physiological change that could persist to adulthood. Attenuation of baseline CORT concentrations in adult females is contrary to the general assumption that elevated CORT concentrations indicate stress, suggesting that more research is necessary before CORT concentrations can be used to accurately assess chronic stress in field studies.
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