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Seasonal changes in adrenal sensitivity alter corticosterone levels in Gambel's white-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii).

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  • 1Department of Biology, Tufts University, Medford, Massachusetts 02155, USA.


Recent work indicates that Gambel's white-crowned sparrows modulate corticosterone release seasonally in response to capture and restraint. Free-living white-crowned sparrows dramatically elevate both baseline and stress-induced corticosterone levels during the breeding season compared with either wintering or migrating birds. Although corticosteroid binding globulin capacity also rises during breeding, it does not fully compensate for elevated glucocorticoid levels. Consequently, we examined what hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis changes could account for seasonal changes in glucocorticoid levels. During winter and fall migration, exogenous ACTH failed to elevate corticosterone levels beyond the response to capture and handling, suggesting that the adrenal's ability to release corticosterone limits circulating levels during these seasons. In contrast, not only were corticosterone levels higher during breeding, but adrenals further responded to an exogenous ACTH signal, indicating a dramatic enhancement of the adrenal's ability to secrete corticosterone. Furthermore, we inferred the pituitary's ACTH secretory ability by injecting exogenous corticotrophin-releasing factor (CRF), arginine vasotocin (AVT) and mesotocin and measured corticosterone release. Pituitaries in breeding birds appear to respond to exogenous CRF and AVT, suggesting hypothalamic control of corticosterone release during this season. Taken together, these results suggest that seasonal modulation of corticosterone release in this species is controlled primarily at the adrenal.

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