Long-term effects of chronic light pollution on seasonal functions of European blackbirds (Turdus merula)

PLoS One. 2013 Dec 20;8(12):e85069. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0085069. eCollection 2013.


Light pollution is known to affect important biological functions of wild animals, including daily and annual cycles. However, knowledge about long-term effects of chronic exposure to artificial light at night is still very limited. Here we present data on reproductive physiology, molt and locomotor activity during two-year cycles of European blackbirds (Turdus merula) exposed to either dark nights or 0.3 lux at night. As expected, control birds kept under dark nights exhibited two regular testicular and testosterone cycles during the two-year experiment. Control urban birds developed testes faster than their control rural conspecifics. Conversely, while in the first year blackbirds exposed to light at night showed a normal but earlier gonadal cycle compared to control birds, during the second year the reproductive system did not develop at all: both testicular size and testosterone concentration were at baseline levels in all birds. In addition, molt sequence in light-treated birds was more irregular than in control birds in both years. Analysis of locomotor activity showed that birds were still synchronized to the underlying light-dark cycle. We suggest that the lack of reproductive activity and irregular molt progression were possibly the results of i) birds being stuck in a photorefractory state and/or ii) chronic stress. Our data show that chronic low intensities of light at night can dramatically affect the reproductive system. Future studies are needed in order to investigate if and how urban animals avoid such negative impact and to elucidate the physiological mechanisms behind these profound long-term effects of artificial light at night. Finally we call for collaboration between scientists and policy makers to limit the impact of light pollution on animals and ecosystems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Body Weights and Measures
  • Cities
  • Germany
  • Light / adverse effects*
  • Linear Models
  • Locomotion / physiology*
  • Locomotion / radiation effects
  • Male
  • Molting / physiology*
  • Molting / radiation effects
  • Passeriformes / physiology*
  • Reproduction / physiology*
  • Reproduction / radiation effects
  • Seasons*
  • Testis / physiology
  • Testis / radiation effects
  • Testosterone / metabolism


  • Testosterone

Grant support

J.P. was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation (‘Initiative Evolutionary Biology’). Additional funding to D.D. was provided by the International Max Planck Research School for Organismal Biology. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.