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J Anim Ecol. 2007 Nov;76(6):1181-91.

Age-specific reproductive success in a long-lived bird: do older parents resist stress better?

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1
Centre d'Etudes Biologiques de Chizé, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, F-79360 Villiers en Bois, Deux-Sèvres, France. angelier@cebc.cnrs.fr

Abstract

In many vertebrates, reproductive performance increases with advancing age but mechanisms involved in such a pattern remain poorly studied. One potential mechanism may be the hormonal stress response, which shifts energy investment away from reproduction and redirects it towards survival. In birds, this stress response is achieved through a release of corticosterone and is also accompanied by a decrease in circulating prolactin, a hormone involved widely in regulating parental cares. It has been predicted that, when the value of the current reproduction is high relative to the value of future reproduction and survival, as it is expected to be in older adults, the stress response should be attenuated to ensure that reproduction is not inhibited. We tested this hypothesis by measuring the corticosterone and prolactin responses of known-age (8-36 years old) incubating snow petrels (Pagadroma nivea) to a standardized capture/handling stress protocol. We also investigated whether an attenuation of the stress responses will correlate with a lower occurrence of egg neglect, a frequently observed behaviour in snow petrels. The probability of successfully fledging a chick increased from 6 years to 12 years before stabilizing after 12 years of age. Corticosterone response to stress was unaffected by age. Prolactin response to stress, however, was influenced clearly by age: in both sexes older breeders had higher stress-induced prolactin levels than younger ones. This was due to an increasing attenuation of the prolactin response to stress with advancing age in females, and in males this was due to a probably higher intrinsic capacity of older males to secrete prolactin. Moreover, higher stress-induced prolactin levels were correlated with a lower probability of neglecting the egg. In young breeders, the combination of a robust corticosterone increase with a lower ability to maintain prolactin secretion during acute stress is probably one of the functional causes of their lower incubation commitment. We suggest that the ability to maintain a threshold level of prolactin during a stressful situation may be an important physiological mechanism involved in the improvement of reproductive performance with advancing age in long-lived birds.

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