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Horm Behav. 2018 Jul;103:129-139. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2018.06.010. Epub 2018 Jul 3.

Cortisol during adolescence organises personality traits and behavioural syndromes.

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Department of Animal Behaviour, Bielefeld University, Germany; GELIFES - Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences, University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Electronic address:
GELIFES - Groningen Institute for Evolutionary Life Sciences, University of Groningen, the Netherlands.
Department of Animal Behaviour, Bielefeld University, Germany.
Department of Animals in Science and Society, Utrecht University, Yalelaan 2, 3508, TD, Utrecht, the Netherlands. Electronic address:


Despite the growing evidence for the importance of developmental experiences shaping consistent individual differences in behaviour and physiology, the role of endocrine factors underlying the development and maintenance of such differences across multiple traits, remains poorly understood. Here, we investigated how an experimental manipulation of circulating glucocorticoids during early adolescence affects behavioural and physiological variation and covariation later in life in the precocial cavy (Cavia aperea). Plasma cortisol concentrations were experimentally elevated by administering cortisol via food for 3 weeks. Struggle docility, escape latency, boldness, exploration and social behaviour were then tested three times after individuals attained sexual maturity. In addition, blood samples were taken repeatedly to monitor circulating cortisol concentrations. Exogenous cortisol affected mean trait expression of plasma cortisol levels, struggle docility and escape latency. Repeatability of cortisol and escape latency was increased and repeatability of struggle docility tended to be higher (approaching significance) in treated individuals. Increased repeatability was mainly caused by an increase of among-individual variance. Correlations among docility, escape latency and cortisol were stronger in treated animals compared to control animals. These results suggest that exposure to elevated levels of cortisol during adolescence can alter animal personality traits as well as behavioural syndromes. Social and risk-taking traits showed no correlation with cortisol levels and were unaffected by the experimental manipulation, indicating behavioural modularity. Taken together, our data highlight that cortisol can have organising effects during adolescence on the development of personality traits and behavioural syndromes, adding to the increasing evidence that not only early life but also adolescence is an important sensitive period for behavioural development.


Behavioural variation; Cavia aperea; Developmental plasticity; Developmental stress; Glucocorticoids; Permanent environment; Phenotypic modularity; Trait covariance

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