The adaptive value of stress-induced phenotypes: effects of maternally derived corticosterone on sex-biased investment, cost of reproduction, and maternal fitness

Am Nat. 2008 Oct;172(4):E135-49. doi: 10.1086/590959.


The question of why maternal stress influences offspring phenotype is of significant interest to evolutionary physiologists. Although embryonic exposure to maternally derived glucocorticoids (i.e., corticosterone) generally reduces offspring quality, effects may adaptively match maternal quality with offspring demand. We present results from an interannual field experiment in European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) designed explicitly to examine the fitness consequences of exposing offspring to maternally derived stress hormones. We combined a manipulation of yolk corticosterone (yolk injections) with a manipulation of maternal chick-rearing ability (feather clipping of mothers) to quantify the adaptive value of corticosterone-induced offspring phenotypes in relation to maternal quality. We then examined how corticosterone-induced "matching" within this current reproductive attempt affected future fecundity and maternal survival. First, our results provide support that low-quality mothers transferring elevated corticosterone to eggs invest in daughters as predicted by sex allocation theory. Second, corticosterone-mediated sex-biased investment resulted in rapid male-biased mortality resulting in brood reduction, which provided a better match between maternal quality and brood demand. Third, corticosterone-mediated matching reduced investment in current reproduction for low-quality mothers, resulting in fitness gains through increased survival and future fecundity. Results indicate that the transfer of stress hormones to eggs by low-quality mothers can be adaptive since corticosterone-mediated sex-biased investment matches the quality of a mother to offspring demand, ultimately increasing maternal fitness. Our results also indicate that the branding of the proximate effects of maternal glucocorticoids on offspring as negative ignores the possibility that short-term phenotypic changes may actually increase maternal fitness.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Canada
  • Corticosterone / physiology*
  • Female
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior
  • Nesting Behavior*
  • Random Allocation
  • Reproduction
  • Starlings / physiology*


  • Corticosterone