Conservation physiology

Feather and faecal corticosterone concentrations predict future reproductive decisions in harlequin ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus).

PMID 27382474


Understanding sources of reproductive variation can inform management and conservation decisions, population ecology and life-history theory. Annual reproductive variation can drive population growth rate and can be influenced by factors from across the annual cycle (known as carry-over effects). The majority of studies, however, focus solely on the role of current environmental events. Past events often influence future reproductive decisions and success but can be logistically difficult to collect and quantify, especially in migratory species. Recent work indicates that glucocorticoids may prove good indicators to evaluate carry-over effects across life-history transitions. Here, we evaluated three different measures of glucocorticoid physiology (feathers, faeces and plasma) to evaluate the predictability of future breeding decision in the harlequin duck (Histrionicus histrionicus). We collected tail and back feathers, plasma and faeces for glucocorticoid analysis, and fitted female harlequin ducks with very high-frequency transmitters to track their breeding decisions. Both back feathers (moulted immediately before the current season) and faecal glucocorticoid metabolites were identified as important predictive factors of reproductive decisions; high concentrations of glucocorticoid metabolites in back feathers and faeces predicted a higher likelihood of reproductive deferral for the year. Although back and tail feather corticosterone concentrations were correlated, tail feathers (moulted at the end of the previous breeding season) did not predict breeding decisions. Plasma corticosterone concentrations were collected over too broad a time range after capture to be useful in this study. This study demonstrates the utility of non-invasive corticosterone metrics in predicting breeding decisions and supports the use of feathers to measure carry-over effects in migratory birds. With this technique, we identified the prenuptial moult as an important life-history phase that contributes to reproductive decisions. Identification of critical life-history phases is paramount to efficient management of species.