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Arctic spring: hormone-behavior interactions in a severe environment.

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Department of Zoology, Box 351800, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.


Arctic breeding birds arrive on their nesting grounds in spring when weather conditions may still be extreme (low temperature, snow). The brief Arctic summer requires that they begin breeding as early as possible to take advantage of the ephemeral abundance of food to feed young. Failure to adjust to the local phenology results in drastically reduced reproductive success. Hormone-behavior adaptations may have evolved that maximize survival and reproductive success in the Arctic. It has been shown that the interrelationship of testosterone and territorial aggression, as birds arrive on the Arctic breeding grounds, varies according to species and locality. In some, territoriality is extremely brief following which birds become apparently refractory to the effects of testosterone. Others are territorial throughout the breeding season, but the dependence of these behaviors upon activation by testosterone is lost. Extensive data also indicate that Arctic birds modulate the adrenocortical response to acute stress. Secretion of corticosterone in response to a standardized capture stress protocol, used to mimic acute stress as a function of local environmental conditions, varies with the stage in the breeding cycle. Arctic breeding birds modulate the sensitivity of the adrenocortical response to acute stress at both the population and individual levels. These modulations are thought to be adaptations to allow the onset of territorial behavior and breeding in the face of potentially stressful conditions. Behavioral and physiological responses to corticosterone treatment are also diminished. A combination of these two hormone-behavior interrelationships can form important components of the proximate mechanisms by which birds, and other vertebrates, breed successfully in a severe and often capricious environment.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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