Glucocorticoid hormones facilitate responses to environmental challenges by mediating diverse physiological and behavioral changes, including resource mobilization and altered reproductive effort. Elevated glucocorticoids might indicate that an individual is facing high levels of environmental challenges and thus, elevated concentrations might be associated with reduced fitness (CORT-fitness hypothesis). Alternatively, the energetic demands of reproduction might be a challenge that requires elevated glucocorticoids to mobilize resources to support reproductive effort, ultimately increasing reproductive investment and fitness (CORT-adaptation hypothesis). Investigations of glucocorticoid-fitness relationships have yielded mixed results. Variation in the direction of this relationship could be caused in part by differences in the contexts in which the relationship was assessed. Incorporating context, such as life history stage, could be key to understanding the role of glucocorticoids in influencing fitness outcomes. We investigated the relationship between corticosterone and reproductive effort and success within a single life history stage: incubation of eggs. In an observational study, we measured baseline corticosterone in incubating female red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), monitored incubation behavior, and determined hatching success for each nest. Incubating birds with higher baseline corticosterone concentrations had more frequent, shorter incubation bouts and spent less time overall incubating their clutches of eggs than birds with lower corticosterone concentrations. Elevated corticosterone was also associated with lower clutch mass, but neither corticosterone nor incubation effort were correlated with hatching success. Although experimental tests are needed to establish causation, these results suggest that during the incubation period, corticosterone might shift resource investment towards self-maintenance, and away from current reproductive effort.
In an observational study, we measured baseline corticosterone in incubating female red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus), monitored incubation behavior, and determined hatching success for each nest.