Costs of compensation: effect of early life conditions and reproduction on flight performance in zebra finches
Conditions experienced in early life have been shown to affect the development or programming of physiological processes. While animals may recover from earlier periods of adversity, this process can carry long-term costs. Such long-term effects are likely to be most evident when individuals are placed in demanding situations that require high performance. Escape flight speed in passerine birds is crucial to predator evasion and requires very rapid take-off. Here, we examine whether the ability to maintain escape flight performance during the immediate post-breeding period is influenced by conditions in early life. We manipulated the early life conditions experienced by zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata) by rearing them on either low or high quality food through the growth period, or by changing conditions halfway through the nestling period, moving from high to low or vice versa. While there was no difference amongst the treatment groups in body size attained by adulthood, amongst the birds that experienced low quality food, the body size of those that were switched to a high quality diet halfway through the nestling growth period recovered faster than those that had low quality food until fledging. We found no differences amongst the dietary groups in flight performance at adulthood prior to breeding, and all groups showed a decline in average escape flight performance over the breeding period. However, the magnitude of the post-breeding decline in flight performance for a given level of reproductive output was significantly greater for those females that had experienced a switch from a low to a high quality diet during the nestling phase. These results suggest that this diet-induced rapid recovery of body size, which may have immediate competitive advantages, nonetheless carries locomotory costs in later life manifest in the capacity to sustain the high performance escape response during the post-reproductive recovery phase.