Almasi, B., Roulin, A., Jenni-Eiermann, S. & L. Jenni (2008)

Parental investment and its sensitivity to corticosterone is linked to melanin-based coloration in barn owls.

Further information

Horm. Behav. 54 (1): 217–223



Behavioral and physiological responses to unpredictable changes in environmental conditions are, in part, mediated by glucocorticoids (corticosterone in birds). In polymorphic species, individuals of the same sex and age display different heritable melanin-based color morphs, associated with physiological and reproductive parameters and possibly alternative strategies to cope with variation in environmental conditions. We examined whether the role of corticosterone in resolving the trade-off between self maintenance and reproductive activities covaries with the size of melanin-based spots displayed on the ventral body side of male barn owls. Administration of corticosterone to simulate physiological stress in males revealed pronounced changes in their food provisioning rates to nestlings compared to control males. Corticosterone-treated males with small eumelanic spots reduced nestling provisioning rates as compared to controls, and also to a greater degree than did corticosterone-treated males with large spots. Large spotted males generally exhibited lower parental provisioning and appear insensitive to exogenous corticosterone suggesting that the size of the black spots on the breast feathers predicts the ability to cope with stressful situations. The reduced provisioning rate of corticosterone-treated males caused a temporary reduction in nestling growth rates but, did not affect fledgling success. This suggests that moderately elevated corticosterone levels are not inhibitory to current reproduction but rather trigger behavioral responses to maximize lifetime reproductive success.