Exposing chicks to maternal stress leads to long-term reproductive success

Oct 21, 2008
Male and female nestling starlings face different developmental costs as they compete for access to the limited resources provided by a low quality mother. Credit: Oliver P. Love

Do mothers purposely expose their offspring to their own stress? If so, why?

The question arises because it is widely accepted that exposure to maternal stress during pre-natal development can have negative impacts on offspring following birth. To examine why a stressed mother would allow this to happen, evolutionary physiologists Oliver Love and Tony Williams examined how offspring exposure to the maternally-derived stress hormone corticosterone affect maternal fitness in free-living European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris).

They experimentally increased yolk levels of corticosterone to mimic the "signal" offspring receive indicating they have a low quality mother. They then paired corticosterone-exposed hatchlings with experimentally manipulated low quality mothers to examine how these mothers fared in raising stress-exposed young compared with "normal" young.

Finally, they followed mothers within and across years to determine the long-term effects of the original manipulation on future reproductive success and maternal survival.

Their results provide the first evidence that low quality mothers benefit in the long-term from exposing offspring to their own stress: corticosterone exposure better "matches" offspring demand to a mother's immediate offspring-rearing capability. Corticosterone-exposed sons were of lower quality at hatching and when paired with a low-quality mother these sons experienced increased mortality.

However, because these mothers now had fewer mouths to feed, and of the smaller, less-demanding sex (daughters), the offspring that survived were of better quality. More importantly, by reducing investment in their current reproductive attempt, these "matched" mothers began second broods in better condition, had increased future reproductive output, and increased survival compared to "mis-matched" mothers (low-quality mothers that raised "normal'" offspring).

In the long-term, natural selection therefore appears to favor low-quality mothers that expose offspring to quality-mediated stress.

Citation: "The adaptive value of stress-induced phenotypes: effects of maternally-derived corticosterone on sex-biased investment, cost of reproduction and maternal fitness" by Oliver P. Love and Tony D. Williams. American Naturalist (2008) 172:E135–E149 DOI: 10.1086/590959

Source: University of Chicago

Explore further: Stanford researchers rethink 'natural' habitat for wildlife

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Large testicles are linked to infidelity

Jan 29, 2014

There is a clear correlation between the size of the testicles of male primates and the proneness to infidelity of females. Learn more about sex, sperm and infidelity at the anniversary exhibition Sexus.

Cow moms favor daughters in milk production study

Jan 27, 2014

Sorry, boys. In the end, mothers favor daughters – at least when it comes to Holstein dairy cows and how much milk they produce for their offspring, according to a new study by Kansas State University and ...

Bright birds make good mothers

Aug 13, 2013

Female blue tits with brightly coloured crowns are better mothers than duller birds, according to a new study led by the University of York.

Mammals can 'choose' sex of offspring, study finds

Jul 10, 2013

A new study led by a researcher at the Stanford University School of Medicine shows that mammalian species can "choose" the sex of their offspring in order to beat the odds and produce extra grandchildren.

Recommended for you

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

20 hours ago

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

Apr 18, 2014

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Researchers successfully clone adult human stem cells

(Phys.org) —An international team of researchers, led by Robert Lanza, of Advanced Cell Technology, has announced that they have performed the first successful cloning of adult human skin cells into stem ...

Plants with dormant seeds give rise to more species

Seeds that sprout as soon as they're planted may be good news for a garden. But wild plants need to be more careful. In the wild, a plant whose seeds sprouted at the first warm spell or rainy day would risk disaster. More ...

Airbnb rental site raises $450 mn

Online lodging listings website Airbnb inked a $450 million funding deal with investors led by TPG, a source close to the matter said Friday.

Health care site flagged in Heartbleed review

People with accounts on the enrollment website for President Barack Obama's signature health care law are being told to change their passwords following an administration-wide review of the government's vulnerability to the ...

Impact glass stores biodata for millions of years

(Phys.org) —Bits of plant life encapsulated in molten glass by asteroid and comet impacts millions of years ago give geologists information about climate and life forms on the ancient Earth. Scientists ...