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Predicting reproductive success from hormone concentrations in the common tern (Sterna hirundo) while considering food abundance


In birds, reproductive success is mainly a function of skill or environmental conditions, but it can also be linked to hormone concentrations due to their effect on behavior and individual decisions made during reproduction. For example, a high prolactin concentration is required to express parental behaviors such as incubation or guarding and feeding the young. Corticosterone level, on the other hand, is related to energy allocation or stress and foraging or provisioning effort. In this study, we measured individual baseline prolactin and corticosterone between 2006 and 2012 in breeding common terns (Sterna hirundo) using blood-sucking bugs. Reproductive parameters as well as prey abundance on a local and a wider scale were also determined during this period. Baseline prolactin and corticosterone varied significantly between years, as did breeding success. At the individual level, prolactin was positively and corticosterone was negatively linked to herring and sprat abundance. At the population level, we also found a negative link between corticosterone and prey abundance, probably reflecting overall foraging conditions. High prolactin during incubation was mainly predictive of increased hatching success, potentially by supporting more constant incubation and nest-guarding behavior. It was also positively linked to a lesser extent with fledging success, which could indicate a high feeding rate of young. Corticosterone concentration was positively related to high breeding success, which may be due to increased foraging activity and feeding of young. In general, our study shows that baseline prolactin and corticosterone levels during incubation can predict reproductive success, despite the presence of an interval between sampling and hatching or fledging of young.

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We are very grateful for assistance of C. Bauch, N. Eckstein, J. Erber, J. Krauss, S. Kreutzer, L. Peters, J. Spieker, K. Weißenfels, and C. Wolters in taking blood samples, and we wish to thank many field assistants for their help in collecting field data, especially G. Wagenknecht. At the CEBC, we thank S. Danó, A. Lacroix, C. Parenteau, and C. Trouvé for their excellent technical work in hormone assays. We thank Dr. A. F. Parlow for supplying chicken prolactin and antibodies. Many thanks to G.A. Schaub from the University of Bochum for providing the bugs and to J. Trauernicht as well as R. Nagel for technical support. L. Szostek and O. Vedder helped to improve the manuscript. This study was performed under the license of Bezirksregierung Weser-Ems and Stadt Wilhelmshaven and was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (BE916/8 and 9). The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Juliane Riechert.

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Communicated by Indrikis Krams.

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Riechert, J., Becker, P.H. & Chastel, O. Predicting reproductive success from hormone concentrations in the common tern (Sterna hirundo) while considering food abundance. Oecologia 176, 715–727 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00442-014-3040-5

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  • Prolactin
  • Corticosterone
  • Breeding success
  • Year effect
  • Food abundance