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Horm Behav. 2004 Aug;46(2):179-92.

European starling chicks benefit from high yolk testosterone levels during a drought year.

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Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853, USA.


Avian egg yolk contains androgenic hormones, such as testosterone, of maternal origin. Experimental elevation of yolk testosterone levels enhances growth of canary chicks. Success in sibling competition, due to increased begging, is presumed to underlie this growth enhancement, because canary hatchlings from testosterone-treated eggs beg longer in response to vibrational stimuli than controls. Furthermore, experimental elevation of both yolk androstenedione and testosterone increased chick growth and begging in black-headed gulls. We measured daily growth of European starling (Sturnus vulgaris) chicks hatching from testosterone-treated or vehicle-treated (control) eggs until 14 days of age, and measured begging behavior at hatching and at 5 days of age. A temporary drought caused relatively high levels of early brood reduction for this population; 2- and 3-day-old chicks were most likely to starve. We found that chicks from testosterone-treated eggs were less likely to starve than control chicks, and were heavier on the days when most brood reduction occurred. However, chicks from testosterone-treated eggs begged less than control chicks on the day of hatching, and begged similarly at 5 days of age. Thus, while yolk testosterone did increase growth during periods of (presumably) high competition, increased begging does not appear to mediate this effect. Instead, testosterone may induce more efficient energy use, for example, by decreasing ineffective begging. While our results indicate that elevated yolk testosterone enhances survival, and thus offspring and parental fitness, further evidence regarding the fitness consequences of yolk androgens are vital to understanding their role in avian life history.

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