Determining the mechanisms that mediate investment decisions between current and future reproductive attempts is still a key goal of life-history studies. Since baseline levels of stress hormones (glucocorticoids - GCs) act as predictive and labile regulators of daily energetic balance in vertebrates they remain excellent candidates for mediating investment decisions both within and across reproductive attempts. Using free-living female European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) we experimentally reduced investment in current reproduction (number of offspring raised in the first brood) to examine whether baseline corticosterone (CORT) acted as a hormonal mediator preparing individuals for a predictable increase in future investment (number of offspring raised in the second brood). Although treatment and control birds raised the same total amount of offspring across two broods, the experimental birds increased reproductive investment in second broods to compensate for the reduced investment in the first brood. Data on both mean and intra-individual changes in baseline CORT support the idea that an increase in baseline CORT between the incubation stages in treatment birds strongly predicted this increase in investment. Importantly, we measured the increase in baseline CORT during late incubation prior to the increase in energetic demand associated with increased reproductive investment in offspring, indicating that flexible within-individual changes in baseline GCs can act as a labile mechanism preparing individuals for predictable increases in reproductive investment. As such, our experimental results indicate that elevated baseline GCs can prepare individuals for investment in energetically expensive life-history stages, rather than simply being elevated as a consequence of increased effort or demand. This suggests that short-term preparative increases in baseline GCs benefit individuals by successfully allowing them to maximize fitness under varying environmental conditions.
Keywords: Corticosterone; European starling (Sturnus vulgaris); Fitness; Phenotypic flexibility; Reaction norm; Reproductive investment.
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