Diel variation in corticosterone and departure decision making in migrating birds

Authors: Cas Eikenaara, Jana Schäfera, Sven Hesslera, Florian Packmorb, Heiko Schmaljohanna

Year: 2020

Publication: Hormones and Behavior

Publication Link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0018506X20300726?via%3Dihub

Keywords: Rhythm, Daily, Corticosterone, Migration, Stopover, Departure, Songbird, Radio-tracking

Abstract: Animals usually show distinct periods of diel activity and non-activity. Circulating baseline levels of glucocorticoid hormones (corticosterone and cortisol) often peak just before or at the transition from the non-active to the active period of the day. This upregulation of glucocorticoids may function to mobilize stored energy and prepare an animal for increased activity. Usually, the alternation of active and non-active periods is highly
predictable; however, there is one group of animals for which this is not always the case. Many otherwise diurnal birds show nocturnal activity during the migration seasons. Nocturnal migratory flights are alternated with stopover periods during which the birds refuel and rest. Stopovers vary in length, meaning that nocturnal migrants are inactive in some nights (when they continue their stopover) but extremely active in other nights (when they depart and fly throughout the night). This provides an ideal natural situation for testing whether glucocorticoids are upregulated in preparation for an increase in activity, which we used in this study. We found that in northern wheatears (Oenanthe oenanthe), corticosterone levels peaked in the few hours before sunset in birds departing from stopover that night, and, importantly, that this peak was absent in birds continuing stopover. This indicates that corticosterone is upregulated in the face of an increase in energy demands, underlining corticosterone’s preparative metabolic function (energy mobilization). The timing of upregulation of corticosterone also gives a first insight in when during the day nocturnally migrating birds decide whether or not to resume migration.

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