Seasonal and acute changes in adrenocortical responsiveness in an arctic-breeding bird

Horm Behav. 1995 Dec;29(4):442-57. doi: 10.1006/hbeh.1995.1276.


The Lapland longspur, Calcarius lapponicus, times its breeding season so that chicks hatch coincident with the brief period of food abundance in the high arctic. This synchronization requires that all reproductive activities occur in over a much shorter period than at lower latitudes. Because of the known influence of stress hormones on delaying breeding in temperate-zone birds and the detrimental effects of such delays in the arctic, we expected the performance of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis of arctic-breeding birds to show less sensitivity to environmental stress than their mid-latitude counterparts. We found that adrenocortical responsiveness to the standardized stress of capture and handling, measured by taking five serial blood samples for corticosterone during the course of a 1-hr period, was similar to many temperate passerines and was also similar both between male and female longspurs and between the migratory and reproductive phases. However, the profile of plasma corticosterone during capture stress was significantly damped in longspurs sampled as they began their postnuptial molt. In addition, we had the opportunity to examine endocrine responses to a natural environmental stress in 1989 during a 3-day snowstorm which concealed available food resources. During this storm longspurs formed progressively larger flocks each day, with females abandoning incubation duties by the third day. Birds captured during the storm showed highly significant increases in both the rate of plasma corticosterone increase during capture and the peak postcapture level compared with birds sampled before the storm. This increased adrenal potential suggests increased activity of the HPA axis in response to severe conditions and is reminiscent of the response to fasting. Although the storm occurred during incubation, and reproductive hormone levels had begun to decline, we measured significant reductions in luteinizing hormone in both males and a subset of females captured during the storm.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adrenal Cortex / physiology*
  • Alaska
  • Animals
  • Arctic Regions
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Birds / physiology*
  • Cold Climate*
  • Corticosterone / blood
  • Fasting / physiology
  • Female
  • Hypothalamo-Hypophyseal System / physiology
  • Male
  • Nesting Behavior / physiology*
  • Oviposition / physiology*
  • Sex Factors


  • Corticosterone