Benefits and costs of increased levels of corticosterone in seabird chicks

Horm Behav. 2003 Jan;43(1):140-9. doi: 10.1016/s0018-506x(02)00030-2.


Seabird chicks respond to food shortages by increasing corticosterone (cort) secretion, which is probably associated with fitness benefits and costs. To examine this, we experimentally increased levels of circulating cort in captive black-legged kittiwake chicks fed ad libitum. We found that cort-implanted chicks begged more frequently and were more aggressive compared to controls. These behavioral modifications must be beneficial to chicks as they facilitate acquisition of food from the parents and might trigger brood reduction and reduced competition for food. Cort-implanted chicks also increased food intake; however, their growth rates were similar to controls. To examine the costs of chronically increased circulating levels of cort, we removed cort implants and, after a 10-day recovery period, tested cognitive abilities of young kittiwakes. We found that the ability of kittiwakes to associate a visual cue with the presence of food in a choice situation was compromised by the experimental elevation of cort during development. To examine the long-term costs of increased levels of cort, 8 months later we tested the performance of the same individuals in a spatial task requiring them to make a detour around a barrier in order to escape from an enclosure. Individuals treated with cort during development took significantly more time to solve this task compared to controls. The results of this study suggest that the adrenocortical response of a developing bird to environmental stressors is associated with both benefits (increased food intake, foraging behavior, and aggression) and costs (low growth efficiency and compromised cognitive abilities later in life). This provides an evolutionary framework for relating juvenile physiological traits to fitness of birds in subsequent life-history stages.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aggression / drug effects
  • Aggression / physiology*
  • Animals
  • Association Learning / drug effects
  • Association Learning / physiology*
  • Birds / growth & development
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Cognition / drug effects
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Corticosterone / blood*
  • Corticosterone / pharmacology
  • Drug Implants
  • Eating / drug effects
  • Eating / physiology
  • Environment
  • Feeding Behavior / drug effects
  • Feeding Behavior / physiology*
  • Memory / drug effects
  • Memory / physiology
  • Space Perception / drug effects
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*


  • Drug Implants
  • Corticosterone