Birds from matched developmental environments breed faster


The developmental environment an animal experiences can have a pervasive and sustained effect on phenotype throughout its life. Animals exposed to suboptimal conditions during development can experience physiological trade-offs, leading to seemingly negative phenotypic changes in later life that have been hypothesised to have detrimental effects on fitness. However, few studies have investigated how exposure to suboptimal developmental conditions affects an animal’s reproductive behavior and fitness. Here, we determine if elevated levels of corticosterone (CORT; the dominant avian stress hormone) during development affect fitness via changes in reproductive investment in adult zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). To do this, we exposed nestling zebra finches to either CORT supplemented or control treatments and assessed their mate selection and reproductive investment as adults, using free choice breeding experiments. We found that breeding pairs of birds from matched developmental treatments (CORT or control) had a shorter latency to lay clutches compared to pairs with mismatched developmental treatments. We found no indication that clutch size or egg mass were affected by developmental treatment. Also, we found no evidence that birds choose mates to match their own developmental treatment. Our results demonstrate that developmental experience may affect reproductive investment through changes to reproductive timing and add to the literature suggesting that pairs with similar developmental backgrounds can coordinate their reproduction more effectively.

Significance statement

Developmental stress may reduce the fitness of a breeding pair as a result of its detrimental effect on phenotype and performance. Alternatively, individuals could use indicators of developmental stress to influence mate choice in order to compensate for a poor start to life. Previous studies suggest that birds do assortatively mate by developmental environment, but this has not been tested in a free choice mating context. Using a free choice breeding experiment, we show that pairs of breeding birds lay eggs faster when they have matching developmental environments, regardless of the quality of their developmental environment. This evidence suggests that assortatively mated pairs can potentially offset a bad start to life and maintain fitness in spite of the deleterious effects of developmental stress.

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Fig. 1

Data availability

The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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This work was conducted with substantial help in the aviary from Anna Miltiadous. We.

also thank the Deakin Waurn Ponds Campus animal care staff, especially Dr. Rod Collins. We would like to thank two anonymous reviewers, who provided useful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

Funding information

This work was supported by grants from Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB); Birdlife Australia and Australian Research Council grant number FT140100131 to KLB.

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Correspondence to Harrison J.F. Eyck.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical note

Our experiments complied with all Australian laws and were conducted under the ethics permit G15-2015, approved by Animal Ethics Committee Laboratory-Geelong (AECL-G). After the experiments concluded, birds were housed in sex-specific groups in two outdoor aviaries (3 × 1 × 2 m).

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Eyck, H.J., Crino, O.L., Kraft, F.O. et al. Birds from matched developmental environments breed faster. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 74, 20 (2020).

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  • Corticosterone
  • Developmental history
  • Developmental stress
  • Mate choice
  • Reproductive investment
  • Zebra finch