A Single Exposure to an Acute Stressor has Lasting Consequences for the Hypothalamo-Pituitary-Adrenal Response to Stress in Free-Living Birds

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In vertebrates, activation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis in response to unpredictable events results in elevated glucocorticoid secretion. Repeated exposure to stressors alters subsequent glucocorticoid secretion, either by inducing chronic stress or as a result of habituation. However, most studies of repeated stress focus on the impacts of multiple and frequent exposures to acute stressors, and few have been carried out in free-living animals. We investigated whether a single exposure to a novel stressor was sufficient to produce long-lasting alterations in HPA function in free-living eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis). We subjected adult females to a capture/restraint protocol in which we collected serial blood samples over an hour of restraint to be analyzed for corticosterone. We administered this protocol to three groups of females during the nestling phase of their first and/or second brood of the season: Repeaters (sampled during brood 1 and brood 2), Naïve-Brood 1 (sampled only during brood 1), and Naïve-Brood 2 (sampled only during brood 2). Repeaters had attenuated corticosterone responses to the second restraint bout compared to the first, and in brood 2, Repeaters had lower responses than Naïve-Brood 2 females. However, Naïve-Brood 1 and Naïve-Brood 2 birds did not differ in their responses to restraint. Thus, as little as one prior experience with an acute stressor was sufficient to alter subsequent HPA responsiveness, and this effect was not due to a natural change in HPA responsiveness as the breeding season progressed. These data may have important implications for understanding how acute stressors can alter a free-living animal's ability to cope in the face of subsequent stressors, and for longitudinal field studies in which individuals are repeatedly sampled for glucocorticoid responsiveness. © 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Corticosterone, Eastern bluebird, Habituation, HPA axis, Repeated stressors, Sialia sialis

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