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Starling bird

Stress hormone helps during difficult times

November 13, 2008

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Correction Appended

SFU biologists Oliver Love and Tony Williams and colleagues from Trent University discovered that hormones released by stressed mother starlings can improve the physical development of their offspring. The researchers’ findings were published in the October edition of the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

The scientists injected European starling eggs at a Langley dairy farm with the hormone corticosterone to mimic their mother’s stress hormones, signalling to the offspring that they were being raised in a low-quality environment. Surprisingly, the birds left the nest with increased flight performance and larger, more mature flight muscles. Researchers say it’s difficult to say whether better performance means better chances of survival, but suggest the hormone is part of a "package strategy" letting the offspring cope under poor circumstances.

"We believe the chicks are using a maternal hormonal cue as an honest indicator of the quality of the environment they will be fledging into," says Love. "They may use this cue to prepare for a more stressful world by speeding up the development of traits that increase survival prospects."

Love, a post-doctoral researcher in biology, collected data for the study as part of his PhD examining effects of maternal stress on offspring quality and maternal fitness. He just returned from the Arctic, studying the impact of climate change-induced warming on the reproduction and decline of common eiders and snow buntings.

Correction: November 20, 2008
The original, print version of this story ran under the headline: "Stress is good-if you're a mother starling". This headline has been changed to: "Stress hormone helps during difficult times".

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