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Biol Rev Camb Philos Soc. 2006 Nov;81(4):629-66. Epub 2006 Oct 12.

Orchestration of avian reproductive effort: an integration of the ultimate and proximate bases for flexibility in clutch size, incubation behaviour, and yolk androgen deposition.

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Department of Biology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3280, USA.


How much effort to expend in any one bout of reproduction is among the most important decisions made by an individual that breeds more than once. According to life-history theory, reproduction is costly, and individuals that invest too much in a given reproductive bout pay with reduced reproductive output in the future. Likewise, investing too little does not maximize reproductive potential. Because reproductive effort relative to output can vary with predictable and unpredictable challenges and opportunities, no single level of reproductive effort maximizes fitness. This leads to the prediction that individuals possessing behavioural mechanisms to buffer challenges and take advantage of opportunities would incur fitness benefits. Here, we review evidence in birds, primarily of altricial species, for the presence of at least two such mechanisms and evidence for and against the seasonal coordination of these mechanisms through seasonal changes in plasma concentrations of the pituitary hormone prolactin. First, the seasonal decline in clutch size of most bird species may partially offset a predictable seasonal decline in the reproductive value of offspring. Second, establishing a developmental sibling-hierarchy among offspring may hedge against unpredictable changes in resource availability and offspring viability or quality, and minimize energy expenditure in raising a brood. The hierarchy may be a product, in part, of the timing of incubation onset relative to clutch completion and the rate of yolk androgen deposition during the laying cycle. Because clutch size should influence the effects of both these traits on the developmental hierarchy, we predicted and describe evidence in some species that females adjust the timing of incubation onset and rate of yolk androgen deposition to match clutch size. Studies on domesticated precocial species reveal an inhibitory effect of the pituitary hormone prolactin on egg laying, suggesting a possible hormonal basis for the regulation of clutch size. Studies on the American kestrel (Falco sparverius) and other species suggest that the seasonal increase in plasma concentrations of prolactin may regulate both a seasonal advance in the timing of incubation onset and a seasonal increase in the rate of yolk androgen deposition. These observations, together with strong conceptual arguments published previously, raise the possibility that a single hormone, prolactin, functions as the basis of a common mechanism for the seasonal adjustment of reproductive effort. However, a role for prolactin in regulating clutch size in any species is not firmly established, and evidence from some species indicates that clutch size may not be coupled to the timing of incubation onset and rate of yolk androgen deposition. A dissociation between the regulation of clutch size and the regulation of incubation onset and yolk androgen deposition may enable an independent response to the predictable and unpredictable challenges and opportunities faced during reproduction.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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