Plasma levels of luteinizing hormone (LH) and prolactin associated with parental behavior were measured in the Antarctic winter breeding emperor penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri. Males exclusively incubate the egg while females exclusively brood the nonhomeothermic young; both sexes alternate in rearing the homeothermic young. Birds were sampled on arrival from the sea through egg laying, incubation, and brooding. All parent birds lost their chicks at the end of the brooding period due to harsh weather but sampling continued. In females, LH titers dropped after egg laying but levels were restored when the birds returned from the sea to brood the chicks and were not depressed by high prolactin levels. Plasma prolactin remained low in males captured on arrival and kept until the free-living males finished incubation. In breeders, prolactin secretion increased during the prelaying period when day length decreased. Prolactin levels stayed elevated in males during incubation and in brooding females returning after a 2-month absence at sea. Prolactin values were higher in brooding females than in males ending incubation or returning in late brooding. These levels did not drop after chick loss, and the sexual difference in prolactin values was maintained after breeding failure. In emperor penguins, increased prolactin secretion appears to be triggered around the time of egg laying and continues, driven by an endogenous mechanism, through incubation and brooding until rearing is completed. Prolactin secretion independent of external stimuli may have evolved in pelagic seabirds to maintain parental care despite long absences at sea from the breeding colony.
Copyright 1999 Academic Press.