Song as an honest signal of developmental stress in the zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata)

Horm Behav. 2003 Aug;44(2):132-9. doi: 10.1016/s0018-506x(03)00124-7.


In a wide range of bird species, females have been shown to express active preferences for males that sing more complex songs. Current sexual selection theory predicts that for this signal to remain an honest indicator of male quality, it must be associated with an underlying cost of development or maintenance. There has been considerable debate questioning the costs associated with song production and learning. Recently, the nutritional stress hypothesis proposed that song complexity could act as an indicator of early developmental history, since the song control nuclei in the brain are laid down early in life. Here we test the nutritional stress hypothesis, by investigating the effects of dietary stress on the quality of adult song produced. In addition, we tested the effects of elevated corticosterone during development on song production to test its possible involvement in mediating the effects of developmental stress. The results demonstrate that both dietary restriction and elevated corticosterone levels significantly reduced nestling growth rates. In addition, we found that experimentally stressed birds developed songs with significantly shorter song motif duration and reduced complexity. These results provide novel experimental evidence that complex song repertoires may have evolved as honest signals of male quality, by indicating early developmental rearing conditions.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animal Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Animals
  • Corticosterone / physiology*
  • Female
  • Food Deprivation
  • Male
  • Sex Characteristics
  • Sexual Behavior, Animal
  • Songbirds / physiology*
  • Stress, Physiological / physiopathology*
  • Vocalization, Animal / physiology*


  • Corticosterone