Study finds how hormones help birds to cope with environmental changes
Hormones control vital body functions in many animals, including birds. They help animals to regulate metabolism and food intake, thereby supporting them in maintaining their body temperature within a certain range.
The amount of stress hormones in the blood of free-living great tits varies greatly. The scientists discovered significant variations in the degree to which individual great tits' glucocorticoid hormone levels altered in response to varying ambient temperatures. The ability of bird populations to adjust to changing conditions, such as more frequent temperature extremes brought on by climate change, may be facilitated by such individual variances.
A research project at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence studied the birds over several years. The findings of the study were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences.
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Hormones control vital body functions in many animals, including birds. They help animals to regulate metabolism and food intake, thereby supporting them in maintaining their body temperature within a certain range. Glucocorticoids are stress hormones that coordinate many of the functions that help animals to cope with changes in their environment. On cold days, they are produced in larger amounts and help the body to use carbohydrate, fat, and protein reserves to generate heat. When temperatures are higher, glucocorticoid levels decrease and so does the conversion of energy into body heat.
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In environments with widely fluctuating temperatures, stabilizing body temperature by hormones becomes increasingly important. Small warm-blooded animals such as birds must respond quickly to temperature fluctuations in order to maintain their body temperature. As a consequence of climate change, many habitats undergo major changes in environmental conditions, and extreme temperatures occur more frequently. Yet, how much does the climate affect the hormone balance of birds? Do individuals cope differently with climate change?
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To answer these questions, data must be collected over several years. Research group leader Michaela Hau and two colleagues thus determined the glucocorticoid levels of a population of great tits in southern Bavaria over five years. They related their measurements to environmental temperatures and found, as expected, that hormone levels were higher at colder temperatures. However, there were also large differences in the responses of individual birds to temperature fluctuations.
Large individual differences
"We observed for the first time in free-living vertebrates that some individuals show a more pronounced adjustment in glucocorticoid levels to environmental temperature than others," says Michaela Hau. "This variation among individuals may allow populations to cope with a wide range of environmental conditions." Further studies are needed to determine whether the observed hormonal differences among individuals lead to differences in heat production or resistance to heat loss. It is also unknown whether this individual variation is associated with increased reproductive success or survival.
"If the strength of glucocorticoid changes has a heritable component and individuals with certain hormonal responses produce more offspring or survive longer, natural selection may alter the composition of populations in subsequent generations," Michaela Hau explains. "Our work therefore is an important basis for understanding whether and how animals can adapt to climate change."