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Horm Behav. 2000 Nov;38(3):149-58.

Prolactin and parental behavior in Adélie penguins: effects of absence from nest, incubation length, and nest failure.

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Department of Zoology and Genetics, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa 50011, USA.


Adélie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae) males and females, nesting in Antarctica, alternate attendance at the nest with absences of many days to forage at sea. We investigated the importance of tactile input from egg and chicks on prolactin levels by observing nest attendance patterns and obtaining blood samples (1) during the first nest exchange of the incubation stage, (2) from birds whose incubation period was artificially increased or decreased by about 10 days, and (3) from birds whose nests had failed. Prolactin levels in females after 8 to 11 days of absence from the breeding colony did not differ from those in incubating males and did not change after females resumed incubation. Moving eggs between nests resulted in nests in which chicks hatched after about 26, 36 (normal), or 46 days. Duration of incubation did not affect prolactin levels in the parents measured during incubation, at the pip stage, hatch stage, or early brood stage. Adults first left their chicks unguarded on about the same calendar date, regardless of chick age. However, chicks from long incubation nests averaged 8 days younger when they were left unguarded than chicks from control or short-incubation nests. In females, there was no effect of nest failure on prolactin levels. In males, prolactin levels were slightly lower after nest failure than in males tending nests. Testosterone was significantly higher in males after nest failure than in males still tending nests. Prolactin is elevated in Adélie penguins as part of the program of cyclical hormonal changes that accompany the lengthy reproductive season and is relatively independent of tactile input. Sustained prolactin secretion is probably required for the maintenance of parental behavior in offshore feeding species that must be absent from the nest for many days at a time.

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